As most of us in the US are now required to stay at home because of the coronavirus, I have more opportunity to speak with some of my friends who are normally very busy. Recently, I spoke with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action Agenda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center via Zoom.
Our conversation inevitably turned to the coronavirus and how it was affecting our lives. After sharing each other’s family situation under the restriction, we talked about anti-Asian American incidents that were happening with the spread of the coronavirus across the US. In less than a month, many things happened:
On March 18th, President Trump was challenged by a reporter during a White House press conference as to why he kept using the term “the Chinese virus” which many people complained as racist. He responded, “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.”
He also mentioned that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who tweeted in the previous week, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” President Trump declared, “That can’t happen…It comes from China.”
Yet on March 23rd, President Trump tweeted, “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States…the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!”
A group of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ organizations created a website, “Stop AAPI Hate,” in mid-March and have been monitoring anti-Asian hate crimes. Those who experienced harassments or physical attacks could report to this site not only in English but in Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and some other Asian languages. It received 1,135 reports in two weeks. They ranged from verbal attacks like “Go back to China!” to physical attacks like being pushed or being sprayed disinfectant, and various forms of vandalism. Hate speech on the Internet was also reported. The most serious incident took place when a 19-year-old man in Texas stabbed a Chinese family with two young children, saying that they were spreading the virus. This incident led the FBI to issue a warning that “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease…endangering Asian American communities.”
On March 25th, Congresswoman Grace Meng, representing the Queens area in New York where many Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, live, introduced a resolution, “Condemning all forms of anti-Asian sentiment as related to COVID-19.” (COVID-19 is the official name decided by WHO.)
The resolution calls for, among other things, “All public officials to condemn and denounce any and all anti-Asian sentiment in any form” and “Federal law enforcement officials, working with State and local officials, to expeditiously investigate and document all credible reports of hate crimes, incidents, and threats against the Asian-American community in the United States.”
As Rabbi Cooper had decades of experience of combatting anti-Semitic hate crimes, both in the real world and on the Internet, I asked him how he was assessing the current situation and if there were any lessons for Japanese people.
He asked me if I had watched Bill Maher’s recent commentary on “the Chinese virus.” Bill Maher is a political commentator and TV host. I happened to have watched that commentary. Although Bill Maher is hardly a Trump supporter, he nonetheless agreed with President Trump that we should call the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” Bill Maher explained:
Scientists, who are generally pretty liberal, have been naming diseases after the places they came from for a very long time… Zika is from the Zika Forest, Ebola from the Ebola River, hantavirus the Hantan River… here’s the West Nile virus and Guinea worm and Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, the Spanish flu… no one blogs about it. So why should China get a pass?
This is about facts. It’s about life and death. We’re barely four months into this pandemic, and the wet markets in China — the ones where exotic animals are sold and consumed — are already starting to reopen…
Sorry, Americans. We’re going to have to ask you to keep two ideas in your head at the same time: This has nothing to do with Asian Americans, and it has everything to do with China…We can’t afford the luxury anymore of non-judginess towards a country with habits that kill millions of people everywhere.
Rabbi Cooper said that he believed most Americans would agree with Bill Maher’s commentary. He then shared his thoughts.
“We only have to look at the heroic actions of first-responders, health care professionals, charities, and community volunteers during the coronavirus pandemic to remind us that crises can bring out the best traits in our fellow Americans. Sadly, however, they can also bring out the worst. That is why we need to remain vigilant to fight hate, conspiracies, and scapegoating.
“While it’s clear the Chinese government covered up key information about the coronavirus’ initial outbreak in Wuhan, we need to remember that it is the people of China who were the first victims of this policy.
“During the Black Plague in Europe in the Middle Ages, Jewish people were scapegoated and killed mercilessly by fanatics across the continent. Over 600 entire Jewish communities were destroyed. Many killers claimed that Jews had poisoned wells to spread the plague, or that the plague was a Jewish plot to decimate Christian communities. Never mind that Jews died in horrific numbers during the plague as well. Sadly, modern anti-Semites are right now on the Internet weaving similarly insane conspiracy theories blaming Jews for spreading coronavirus.
“We all must reject any and all efforts seeking to conflate justified anger at the Chinese communist government with anger towards Asian-Americans. We should never blame immigrants from Asia or any country for the actions of a foreign government they have no control over.
“And we must reject the anti-Semites who are always lurking for times of crisis, anger, and uncertainty to spread their cancerous hatred of Jews.
“So, moving forward, people in Japan, in the US, and around the world have an obligation to differentiate between a communist regime and the people of China. Otherwise, the concerns and anger will be taken out on the wrong target and Beijing will evade their global responsibilities.
“Secondly, the World Health Organization chief is in Beijing’s back pocket. If the WHO is to survive, he needs to be removed. He did not demand that the Chinese government provide an accurate and full account of the coronavirus outbreak when it first occurred in Wuhan. He was also reluctant to declare the situation as a pandemic. This situation presents Japan an opportunity—which I am certain the Foreign Ministry will not take— to demand accountability for its financial contributions to the WHO. (On April 14, President Trump announced that the US would suspend its funding to WHO while it reviews the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemics.)
“As for anti-Chinese hate speech on the Internet, the Simon Wiesenthal Center can help. I want Japanese people who find such postings to send us links to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will immediately forward to social media companies to pressure for its removal, the same procedure we follow for any threatening online hate postings. We just turned over a list of some 45 channels on social media platforms to US Attorney General Barr and US Homeland Security officials, that promote lurid conspiracy theories linking Jews to the pandemic.
“The bottom line is that it is not a hate crime to strongly criticize the Chinese government for their irresponsible behavior that put health of the people around the world at risk. Citizens in democracies have the right and obligation to express their opinions.”
The Japanese media have been reporting on the alarming increase of anti-Asian American hate crimes in the US since the spread of coronavirus there. But it is not a simple issue as Bill Maher’s commentary illustrated. According to a recent Harris Poll, 52% of American people agreed with President Trump’s calling the virus, “the Chinese virus.” The House resolution against anti-Asian hate crimes, whose 144 co-sponsors are all Democrats except one, has not been debated yet.
In addition, as some mainstream media in the last few days have been reporting in detail how the Chinese government hid crucial information in the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak, Rabbi Cooper’s warning on the importance of distinguishing legitimate protest against the Chinese government and hate crime is even more important now.
Japan has a history of discriminating against the very people who suffered diseases. Will the fight against coronavirus bring out the best traits in Japanese people or bring out the worst? I sincerely hope it will be the former.
Israel has been called a “start-up nation” due to its advancement in many areas of technology. Over the past few years, the economic exchanges between Japan and Israel have seen rapid growth. On the diplomatic side also, the relationship has deepened since Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Netanyahu made mutual visits, and security cooperation has progressed. As the number of Israeli tourists visiting Japan is increasing, the exchange between the two countries is expanding as never before. ElAl’s direct flights between Tokyo and Tel Aviv from March next year will surely accelerate this trend.
Meanwhile, news coverage on Israel in Japan seems to have converged into only two areas, its relations with the Palestinians and its high-tech industry. As a result, Japanese people do not have an accurate picture of Israeli society. The task of rectifying this situation cannot be done overnight. But for the past two years, I have been visiting Israel and interviewing people, whose stories I believed would help such a task.
Here are two organizations I visited last September.
In May of this year, the international song contest “Eurovision” was held in Tel Aviv and the Shalva Band, made up of young people with disabilities, inspired people around the world.
Shalva Band was formed as part of the music therapy at Shalva, a facility for children with disabilities in Jerusalem. It has grown to be a popular music band that performs not only in Israel but worldwide. Shalva means “Peace of Mind” in Hebrew.
Shalva, which started with only six children with disabilities in 1990, is now the world’s largest facility offering an all-encompassing range of services to 2,000 children with disabilities from infancy to adulthood and their families.
An early intervention program for babies and their mothers also aims to give parents who struggle with raising a child with disabilities hope. Day Care and Preschools offer an enriching curriculum created by educators, social workers, and therapists that includes interaction with mainstream children. In the after-school program, children enjoy daily therapy-oriented activities like sports, drama, arts, music, and swimming. Young adults have the opportunity to receive vocational training.
Here is my interview with Rabbi Kalman Samuels, the founder of Shalva.
“Our second child, Yossi, became blind and deaf when he was 11 months old after he received a vaccination, which had a problem. Some of our friends advised us that we should put Yossi in an institution. We were determined to raise him at home. But we could not communicate with Yossi, and my wife often cried at night.
And a miracle happened when Yossi was eight years old. A special therapist finger-spelled into the palm of his hand the five symbols for the Hebrew word for table, and he suddenly understood that meant this object. Just like Hellen Keller understood water and its name.
All over sudden, his world opened up. Other teachers taught him subjects, and in two years, he was a brilliant child who can learn.
And then my wife sat me down and said, ‘It’s payback time. I promised to God if he could help Yossi, I would devote the rest of my life to helping other mothers.’
We rented an apartment and started an after-school class for six children with disabilities. Many parents of children with disabilities heard about our activities and came one after another, so we rented an apartment next door and the program expanded. Eventually, it served 400 children.
In 2005, the Israeli government came to me to consult. They said that the government will provide 7 acres (60% of the size of Tokyo Dome) of land and that they wanted us to provide our programs to more children. So, we decided to work on a new Shalva center. The government paid for some construction, but the rest of the money had to be raised.
What my wife and I were aiming for was the concept of inclusion. Shalva’s services are basically provided free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. And there is no discrimination based on race, religion, family’s economic status. Wealthy families can voluntarily donate but their children do not receive special treatment.
Shalva now has 400 employees and is the largest of its kind in the world. Every year 50,000 visitors come from around the world.
Our son Yoshi is 43 years old and works independently at a computer-related company.”
Mr. Yossi Samuels visiting President Bush and Mrs. Bush
(Photo courtesy: Rabbi Kalman Samuels)
The world’s Jewish community supported rabbi Samuels and his wife’s dream. Currently, there are support organizations of Shalva across the globe, making many of their activities possible.
The Shalva Center I visited was such a happy place, with sunlight coming through from the front window. It incorporated many ideas of Mrs. Samuels. I learned that there are many couples who were married while working at this Center together.
Dr. Ami Cohen was a doctor with the US Army. When he was stationed in South Korea and Saudi Arabia, he performed pediatric cardiac surgeries. Dr. Cohen immigrated to Israel in 1992. He performed surgery on an Ethiopian child at the request of his Ethiopian doctor friend. Realizing that some African countries lacked advanced medical facilities and trained doctors, he established “Save a Child’s Heart” in 1995.
The Wolfson Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, where Dr. Cohen served as the director of the department of cardiology, became the receiving hospital for this program. Volunteer doctors started to provide pediatric cardiac surgeries to children of Africa, free of charge, airfare, and boarding. As their activities became widely known donations were coming in, and the program was expanding.
Dr. Ami Cohen
(photo courtesy: Save a Child’s Heart)
Dr. Cohen died of altitude sickness while climbing Kilimanjaro in 2001. Continuation of Save a Child’s Heart was in danger. But the people who had been inspired by Dr. Cohen continued the program and made it even bigger. Just recently, they achieved a record of providing cardiac surgeries to 5,000 children from 60 countries. Half of them are Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, 120 doctors and nurses have been invited to Israel from countries such as those in Africa to receive medical training.
I visited the Wolfson Medical Center about 10 minutes south of Tel Aviv by train. Ms. Tamar Shapira, a spokesperson for Save a Child’s Heart, gave me a tour of the pediatric cardiac surgery department and introduced me to the people there.
Children who just undergone cardiac surgery spend the first two days in ICU. A child from Ethiopia, a Palestinian child, and an Israeli child who has undergone surgery as a regular patient were being taken care of by the same doctor/nurse group in the ICU. Ms. Shapira explained, “Any child from any background is taken care of in the same way.”
It was the day when the children who recovered from surgery were receiving a weekly check-up. I met a boy and his mother from an African country. We couldn’t communicate, but I was able to sense her deep appreciation for this program.
I met a female doctor from Tanzania who was checking children. She must be an elite in her home country. She spoke about Save a Child ‘s Heart in fluent English.
“What is unique about this program is that you can learn about the entire process, from pre-treatment diagnosis to post-surgery progress. I would like to bring the knowledge and skills I have gained here to Tanzania and save more children in my home country.”
Next, Ms. Shapira took me to the dormitory in the nearby residential area. Here, pre- and post-surgery children and their mothers live for a few months. Some mothers never used modern kitchen appliances in their home country, but there was a lady who is ready to help them. The courtyard is a playground, where fully recovered children are having fun. Realizing that these children might not have been saved without Save a Child’s Heart, I was deeply moved by watching these children.
(Photo Courtesy: Save a Child’s Heart)
After visiting the hospital and the dormitory, I interviewed Mr. Simon Fisher, Executive Director of Save a Child’s Heart. When I asked what I wanted to know the most – what is the driving force behind this program, Mr. Fischer explained.
“Israel is a young country. Our pioneers worked hard to create this country over the decades. As for medical technology, until the end of the 1970s, Israeli doctors could not save children with difficult conditions such as heart disease. It was in the late 80s that Israeli doctors reached the Western countries’ level, after bringing back knowledge and experiences back from their study in those countries. Israeli doctors remember those days. In that sense, Israeli doctors are a little different from doctors in advanced countries in the West or Japan that have a long history of medical science.
I think that gives Israeli doctors a sense of responsibility to help children in countries that cannot be saved with the latest medical technology and to help medical professionals in those countries gain knowledge and experiences.”
Save a Child’s Heart received last year’s United Nations’ Population Award. Also, the International Pediatric Cardiac Center & Children’s Hospital will be opened next year in the Wolfson Medical Center. A reunion of former patients who have undergone heart surgery by this program will soon be held. It must be an inspiring gathering.
At the time of writing this article, Israel is not able to form a government after two elections. But as these organizations show, there are people in Israel, with only one-fourteenth of Japan’s population, who are doing internationally-acclaimed works following their deep convictions. I hope that the Japanese people will learn more about this aspect of the Israeli society as Japan-Israel exchange deepens.