Why did Israel send aid to Turkey and Syria?

Helping both Jews and non-Jews in need has always been a fundamental part of Israel’s identity.
An Israeli search and rescue experts hands a bottle of water to a civilian in Turkey following the devastating earthquake on February 6, 2023. (Photo: IDF on Twitter)

We’re curious…

Here’s an interesting question to think about. If someone you really didn’t like or someone who really didn’t like you were in trouble, would you offer to help them? Would you go out of your way or even put yourself in harm’s way to help them?

These questions are on our minds in light of Israel’s response to the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. To give some context, Israel is technically at war with Syria (the two countries have fought multiple wars over the decades and tensions remain high).

Although Israel and Turkey now have diplomatic relations, they have a very rocky relationship. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has been a fierce critic of Israel, describing it as a “terror state.” Despite this, Israel immediately sent aid to both Turkey and Syria after the earthquake struck.

The very next day, Israeli search and rescue teams were on the ground in Turkey, searching for civilians trapped under the rubble. In freezing cold temperatures, they rescued 19 people, saving their lives.

In addition, Israel sent tents, medicine, and blankets to Syria and offered to treat wounded Syrians in its hospitals.

To some, this might inspire pride in Israel while others might suspect more complex motivations behind the Jewish state’s actions. Why would Israel, a tiny country of 9 million people, go to places it has a chilly relationship with to help? The answer to this question tells us something that’s critical to understanding the Jewish state.

How Israel responded to the earthquake in Turkey

But first, let’s look at what Israel actually did to help. The Jewish state sent the second-highest number of aid and rescue workers to Turkey compared with every other country. 

The IDF published footage of the rescues. Here’s a video of the IDF rescuing a 65-year-old man from the rubble (warning, this is not easy to watch):

Here’s another video from United Hatzalah of the Israeli team rescuing a 7-year-old girl.

In addition to the search and rescue efforts, over 200 Israeli doctors, nurses, and paramedics also arrived at the scene to set up a field hospital, armed with tons of medical supplies. They treated hundreds of people who were injured in the earthquake.

Israel’s long, proud history of assisting countries in need

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel has carried out 30 missions to provide humanitarian aid to countries abroad in the past 41 years, including the latest mission to Turkey.

The IDF says that the country’s first humanitarian operation was in 1953 when Israel was five years old. That year, “an earthquake hit Greece, taking over 1,000 lives. Israeli Navy ships, which were participating in an exercise in the area, helped the survivors and gave them necessary medical treatment.”

Since then, Israel has assisted in Japan, Mexico, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Romania, Brazil, Albania, the U.S., and other countries.

“Though Israel has problems to deal with itself, the Jewish state has not failed to step up to help others,” the Jerusalem Post Editorial Board wrote, emphasizing the current crisis over the planned judicial reforms, heightened rhetoric in the country, and the recent terror attacks.

“These delegations represent the beautiful Israel,” the editorial board wrote. “They do not represent the Israel getting lost in all the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding the judicial reform debate. This is the Israel in which we must all take pride and to which we must return.”

Why does Israel help even its enemies after disasters?

Typically, we show diverse perspectives on each issue. In this case, there were not many public opinions about whether Israel should send humanitarian aid to an enemy state or whether sending emergency delegations to other countries is a good use of Israel’s money. Perhaps this is because Israelis are used to the Jewish state responding this way.

According to IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, there were three purposes for Israel’s mission to Turkey:

  • To save people in desperate need
  • To be better prepared if Israel faces an earthquake, and
  • To enhance Israel’s relations with Turkey and other countries in the region.

Israelis helped for altruistic reasons, but that wasn’t the only reason why. Israel helping Turkey also helps Israel.

“Thank you very much Israel,” Turkish Ambassador to Israel Shakir Ozkan Torunlar said last week upon the return of Israel’s rescue teams.

“The government of Israel was among the first to provide its [rescue and medical] team,” Torunlar said. “I salute all who were among those who landed in the disaster zone and immediately started their task.”

It reminds us of a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l: “The paradox of giving is that when we…give to another, it is we ourselves who are lifted. I believe that what elevates us in life is not what we receive but what we give.”

Israel Policy Institute’s Michael Koplow argued that Israel’s relief efforts “check both the humanitarian and instrumental boxes.” They are the right thing to do and they also boost Israel’s global standing, he explained.

“Israel’s critics deride its deployment of doctors and emergency workers as entirely self-interested hasbara efforts, which is a mendacious charge that ignores the genuine Israeli tradition rooted in Jewish principles to help others in need,” Koplow wrote.

Did Israel take advantage of an opportunity for great PR by showcasing its rescue team and saving lives? Yes, but that’s not why Israel sent a delegation to Turkey.

Rather, the decision was consistent with Israel’s usual response in these situations. Helping both Jews and non-Jews in need has always been a fundamental part of Israel’s identity and a core tenet of Zionism.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion famously said: “By these will the State be judged: By the moral character it imparts to its citizens; by the human values determining its inner and outward relations; and by its fidelity, in thought and act, to the supreme behest: ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern political Zionism, said: “Whatever we attempt to accomplish there [in the Jewish state] for our welfare, will have its powerful effect, promoting the happiness and well-being of all humankind.”

Has Israel accomplished this vision? Yes, we think it has. The Jewish state’s immediate response to disasters around the world demonstrates that.

Some things transcend politics and geographical boundaries. It’s about humanity and Israelis have shown their humanity.

How to help those impacted in Turkey and Syria

Let’s all follow’s Israel’s lead and step up to help. You can donate to the JDC which is working to provide heated tents, thermal clothes, hot meals, and medical support to the victims.

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