In Israel, helping strangers doesn’t look like a big deal


On Monday, June 12, a disastrous accident occurred at the Beit Yehoshua railroad crossing near Netanya. A van and a pickup truck, coming from opposite directions, were in the process of (legally) crossing the train tracks when the left front of the van nipped the pickup truck. The truck spun out of control, causing a flat tire that disabled the pickup truck directly on the tracks. Onlookers at the scene reacted quickly, scrambling onto the live tracks and extricating the driver. Less than 2 minutes later a 300-ton train smashed into the truck, pushing it about 400 meters. Then the locomotive and two of the railroad passenger cars went off the tracks, with one of the cars flying on top of the locomotive. The impact left five people dead and 80 injured.

The crash was the top story Monday evening on radio and television as well as in Tuesday’s papers. In the Maariv newspaper, for example, the story occupied the entire front page as well as the next six pages. Many aspects of the crash were reviewed, but quite remarkably the fact that total strangers risked their lives to pull the driver from his vehicle was not considered to be a story in Israel. It was as if it was obvious that the rescuers were only doing what everyone in Israel would have done had they been there themselves.

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The tragedy in June demonstrated an incredible Israeli phenomenon: If you get into trouble in Israel chances are that a stranger will help you. During my nine years here this “good Samaritanism” was demonstrated to me most vividly on two occasions, both involving my vehicle, although thankfully in circumstances devoid of potential injury to anyone. The first time was toward the end of December 1997, when my Mazda MPV was about three weeks old. My Mom was with us and she wanted to go to the cemetery where her parents are buried. Somehow or other in my search for the graves through the cemetery’s labyrinth, I managed to wedge my van into a spot where I could neither go forward nor backward. Panic had just about set in when I saw two cemetery workers and asked them for help. They came over, assessed the situation, and said, “This doesn’t look like a big deal.” The two men found some wire, hooked it under the van, and we pushed the van sideways until the front cleared the wall.

The second time I was in car trouble was a year ago. We had gone hiking and I found myself on a dirt road with my front wheel perched precariously on the edge of a rocky slope and my back wheels without traction. (Perhaps that “4 x 4 only” sign I had passed was meant for me?) A family drove by and I flagged them down. The burly father got out, asked what the trouble was, looked at my front tire and said, “This doesn’t seem too bad.” I didn’t know how he was going to do it, but right then I know I was OK. Indeed he navigated the van out of the rocky area by a series of deft driving moves, knowing just when to give a lot of gas and when not to hit the brakes at all. (Is it very parochial of me to admit that I got a special thrill at the fact that this he-man was wearing a kippa?)

There are two factors at work in good Samaritanism: the willingness to help and the ability to help. For Israelis, the ability to help is perhaps honed in the army, where improvising under pressure is extremely important and rewarded. As far as the willingness to help, I guess this comes out of a sense of shared destiny, peoplehood, neighborliness, or some other factor. You’re invited to come to Israel and see for yourself how this good Samaritanism works. Just do me a favor: At the airport, please don’t cut the line in front of one of my fellow Israelis, because then you’re toast.