By Yehuda Meshi-Zahav
ZAKA Chairman and Founder
As the terror attacks continue on an almost daily basis in Israel, a new debate about medical ethics has taken center stage. In mid-December, the Israel Medical Association’s ethics committee issued a directive that patients are to be prioritized on the basis of medical considerations only. The new guidelines came as a result of a petition brought by Physicians for Human Rights, which claimed that Israel was acting in gross violation of international medical ethics and human rights at terror-attack sites.
This because, until now, Israel’s emergency forces had been working on the principle that “charity begins at home”–first we treat the victim and then we treat the terrorist.
While clearly ZAKA volunteers follow this internationally accepted guideline at the road accidents and mass casualty incidents which constitute the largest part of our work, we cannot apply the same directive to terror sites.
Why, you may ask? How does this guideline translate into today’s complex reality in Israel? Quite simply, this would mean that the first responders to a terror attack (such as ZAKA volunteers or MDA paramedics) are required to treat a critically wounded terrorist before treating his less-severely-injured victims.
Let me give you two examples.
When ZAKA chief of operations Haim Weingarten arrived at the site of a car-ramming attack at the entrance to Jerusalem, he was faced with the following scenario. The terrorist, who had been shot in his car, still showed signs of life even though he had gun wounds to his head. It was clear beyond any doubt that the carnage at the site was caused by the terrorist. The meat cleaver on the front seat left little to the imagination–this could have been a much more serious and deadly attack.
Lying on the road was a toddler in a stroller who had been run over by the terrorist, with a very serious wound to the leg. As Haim Weingarten said in a radio interview on the matter: “And you are asking me who I treated? The toddler, of course.”
About a week later, ZAKA volunteer Haim Foxman arrived at the scene of the stabbing attack at the Jaffa Gate. Once again, he was faced with a similar scenario. He, too, treated the severely injured victim at the expense of the critically wounded terrorist. He posted a message on Facebook: “For those of you who are wondering, when I arrived at the scene of the terror attack at Jaffa Gate, I offered assistance to the stabbing victims first. No! I did not treat the terrorist, even though his condition was critical.”
Foxman’s posting was shared and liked by thousands of people, who all expressed support for his stance.
However, neither Foxman nor Weingarten were acting on their own initiative. They are both volunteers with ZAKA Jerusalem, veterans of countless terror attacks and paramedics who work according to halachah and the directives of the ZAKA Rabbinical Council.
ZAKA follows the moral compass of halachah, dealing with complex issues related to honoring the dead (kavod ha’met) in keeping with Jewish law and guided by rabbinical advice.
Even though ZAKA is an integral part of Israel’s emergency response service, with 3,000 volunteers working 24/7 throughout Israel, we have taken an unequivocal decision on the matter.
We direct ZAKA volunteers to first treat the victims of a terror attack–without blinking an eye. Only after they have given medical assistance should they begin treating the murderous terrorist who carried out the attack. In spite of the ethical code that says one should treat the most severely injured first, one should know that even morality has its boundaries. If we do not make this distinction, we lose our direction. Even in Jewish law it says, “He who is merciful to the cruel, will end up being cruel to the merciful.”
It was that same moral compass that persuaded ZAKA to reassess its policy regarding the disposal of the terrorist’s body. Following numerous requests from citizens who saw it is sacrilegious to wrap terrorist remains in body bags that carry the ZAKA logo, we took the decision in October 2015 to wrap the terrorists’ bodies in black bags.
ZAKA is an organization entrusted with honoring the dead. Man is made in the Divine image–all men–and therefore ZAKA carries out its mission in Israel and around the world with dignity and sensitivity, irrespective of religion, race, or creed. But when it comes to murderous and brutal terrorists, we too must know how to make a separation between victim and murderer.