Both the Mishna and the Quran state ‘Whoever destroys a single life is as though he had destroyed the entire world, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved the entire world’
1. How the Albanian nation saved their Jews
In 1930 Albania, a small Balkan country, had a mere 803,000 citizens of which two hundred were Jewish. In 1943 the Nazis occupied Albania and in an unprecedented act of defiance the Albanian people refused to handover its Jewish residents. Instead various government agencies gave Jewish families fake documentation and Jewish refugees from Europe were given sanctuary (even while under Italian rule).
At a time when the European nations were sending their Jews to the gas chambers; Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, not only saved its Jewish residents – but absorbed so many European refugees that the Jewish population grew a staggering 900% during the war.
2. Ivan Ceresnjes, Jakob Finci and the Sarajevo Jews
On the eve of the Bosnian war Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb leader, warned “Sarajevo will be a black cauldron, where 300,000 Muslims will die… Europe will be told to go f**k itself, not to come back until the job is finished”… in the ensuing bloodbath 100,000 people lost their lives.
A year earlier Ivan Ceresnjes and Jakob Finci, leaders of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, foresaw the oncoming war and instructed the community to stockpile supplies. When war finally broke out they were ready and together with the Jewish community they converted their synagogue into an aid distribution centre and began supplying the entire city with medical and humanitarian relief. As the death toll rose they organised the safe passage of 3,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews from the besieged city.
One of those Muslims was Zejneba Hardaga, a 76 year old lady who’d been recognised as “Righteous among the Nations” by Israel for hiding her Jewish neighbour, Josef Kavilio, from the Nazis during the holocaust. Upon hearing war had struck Sarajevo the Kavilio family initiated a frantic search for Zejneba from Israel. Eventually this frail 76 year old was found in a cold basement without water or electricity and in desperate need of medication. Her rescue was coordinated and in an incredible twist of fate the Kavilio family had been able to repay their debt 52 years after Zejneba saved Josef.
3. The Turkish diplomats
Throughout World War II a small number of Turkish diplomats (such as Necdet Kent, Namık Kemal Yolga, Selahattin Ülkümen and Behiç Erkin) risked everything to save the lives of 35,000 European Jews from the Nazi genocide. They were able to save so many Jews by leveraging Turkey’s neutral stance to pressure the Nazis into sparing the lives of Turkish Jews residing in Europe, while simultaneously granting thousands of European Jews fleeing the Nazi genocide refuge in Turkey
It is no understatement that these diplomats risked everything, on July 19 1944, the Gestapo ordered that all of the Jews on island of Rhodes report for deportation, Selahattin Ülkümen, the Turkish Consul General, instructed the Nazis that Turkey was neutral in the war and demanded they release every Turkish Jew and out of fear of causing an international incident the Nazis complied. Ülkümen’s actions saved the lives of 42 Jewish families, who were quickly evacuated from the island. In response to this humiliation the Nazis bombed the Turkish Consulate building, killing his pregnant wife. A few days later Ülkümen was deported by the Nazis to Piraeus, where he spent the remainder of the war in jail.
4. Palestinians saved by Israeli doctors
You would be hard pressed to find something that has damaged Jewish / Muslim relations more than the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Yet from the midst of this conflict incredible acts of humanity have been demonstrated by both sides. The World Health Organization reported that last year Israeli hospitals treated 210,469 Palestinians who were in need medical attention – thats 5% of the Palestinian population.
From Gaza alone Israel approved 98.7% of the requests for medical treatment in Israeli hospitals, this included saving the life of a relative of Ismail Haniyeh (the disputed Palestinian prime minister), numerous terrorists injured while carrying out or planning attacks on Israel, and thousands of patients the Palestinian hospitals were simply incapable of helping.
5. Abdol Hossein Sardari
When the Nazis came for the Iranian Jews living in France, Abdol Hossein Sardari, the Iranian Consul for Paris, used his position and influence to save the lives of the Iranian Jews in France. He fabricated a story that Iranian Jews were not ‘real’ Jews, but Persians who’d accepted the teachings of Moses centuries earlier and therefore not subject to Nazi racial law. After months of intense debate by German racial scientists he’d convinced everyone but Eichmann who simply declared Sardari’s claim was “the usual Jewish trick”.
However, the delay had given Sardari the one thing he desperately needed – time. While the experts were debating in Berlin, he issued as many passports and travel documents as he could to both Iranian and non-Iranian Jews.
When Iran signed a peace treaty with the Allies, Sardari was ordered home by his superiors, an order he did not follow. Stripped of his diplomatic immunity and status, he risked his life by remaining in France to save Jews, which he financed with his personal inheritance. By the end of the war as many as 2,000 Jews owed their life to him.
6. Yoni Jesner, Ahmed Khatib and the organ donors
Yonatan “Yoni” Jesner’s story shatters many of the stereotypes surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Yoni was a 19 year old British Jew studying religious Zionism in a West Bank settlement. With those credentials you may have already branded Yoni an evil oppressor, but when Hamas tragically took his life in terror attack on a bus in Tel Aviv – his family did the unexpected… they donated his kidneys to a 7-year old Palestinian girl called Yasmin Rumeileh. Yoni’s brother Ari spoke to the media about the family decision saying “I think the most important principle here is that life was given to another human being.” Yasmin Rumeileh’s father expressed his gratitude by telling the press “We are one family. They saved my daughter. Part of their son is living in my daughter. We are all one people.”
Ahmed Khatib, a 12 year old Palestinian from Jenin, was shot in 2005 when his toy gun was mistaken by an Israeli soldier for a real one. Both sides confirmed it was a tragic accident and Israel offered an immediate apology. But it was the reaction of the boys parents that shocked the world. As their son’s life slipped away, Ismail and Abla Khatib decided that some good could come of his death if they donated their sons organs to the “enemy”. Within a few hours his organs had saved six Israelis, four of them Jewish.
It’s far too easy to condemn our supposed “enemies” as evil, but Ahmed’s father summarised an inspirational response to this by saying “Take a boy like my son, who was 12 years old. He was born between two intifadas. What does he know but tanks and soldiers and jet fighters? He only meets Israelis who are soldiers. He thinks all Israelis are soldiers. This does not help us. Seeing each other as human beings helps us,”