Suddenly the stranger began waving his hands and shouting for help – in Arabic.A small story about Israel that you won’t find in today’s headlines or leading the evening news.
The other night, we were at a beach north of Tel Aviv with a group of Israeli families. Soft waves, gentle breeze, a campfire, and an idyllic moonlit Mediterranean night. After dinner my seven year-old daughter, Maia, and her friend – also named Maia – entered the water for a twilight swim. Perhaps twenty seconds later I followed them into the sea with Lea, my 4 year-old, in my arms.
By the time I was waist deep, a rip-tide had pulled the two Maias about 30 yards from the shore. They screamed for help as the rough sea wrestled them further and further out. Thinking I could stand, as the girls were only ten yards from me, I stepped out and extended my hand. But the riptide was fierce and sucked Lea and me right out with them. Out here the waves were choppy and tumultuous and the three girls shrieked in panic. With Lea clinging to my neck screaming “I’m scared! I’m scared!” I tried calmly – and to no avail – to push each of the Maias alternatively toward the beach.
A dark man, roughly my age, appeared from seemingly nowhere. I could tell he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but together – both grunting and gasping – we tried pushing the three girls ashore. As we pushed one girl, one of the other two would submerge gagging under the vicious tide. I have lived through many things (including the mayhem of 9/11) and no fear in my life has come close to the thought of one of these three girls (and/or myself) dying just yards from the beach.
Around three excruciating minutes later the stranger and I managed to push the two older girls to the safety of the shallow water. The two Maias sprinted to the beach, screaming for help, as the riptide continued pulling the stranger, Lea, and me back out to sea. I tried in both Hebrew and English to summon help from my friends on the beach. The sea was deafening and no one heard. Suddenly the stranger began waving his hands and shouting for help – in Arabic.
Within twenty seconds a line of seven or eight men formed a human chain on the beach. A dark-skinned teenager scurried out on a boogie board. A proprietor from a nearby falafel stand darted into the waves with a lifesaver in hand. With the total coordination of the entire assembly, the falafel stand guy grabbed Lea, now hoarse terror, onto the lifesaver and the human chain dragged the three of us back to the shallow water.
After the trauma there were slaps on the back, thank yous, and hugs. It was only then, after I finished heaving my guts out onto the nearby
dunes, that I learned that the stranger was not only an Arab from a nearby village but also that he didn’t know how to swim. I learned, too, that the human chain that brought the five of us back to the shore was comprised almost equally of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. The Arab stranger and I both agreed that the situation could have ended up much worse. He said “Baruch Hashem!” – Hebrew, not Arabic, for “Thank God.”
Such events can evoke sweeping sentimental statements and over-simplified metaphors about how there will be peace if only this and when only that. I will try and refrain. Sometimes, though, we are given a glimpse. Sometimes we are not Arabs or Israelis or Americans or Muslims or Jews. Sometimes we are just two tiny men, sea-choked with fear, pushing three little girls toward the calm shore and the warm fires of their particular tribes.
Let’s try and put that on the evening news.