A sneeze in Tel-Aviv Turns Into a cough in Ramallah: Can the Swine Flu Bring Israelis and Palestinians Together?

Someone once told me that Arabs and Jews will come together when pigs fly. Well, it turns out that he was almost right. The threat of a global pandemic has created coordinated efforts by the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian health ministries to work on policies for border crossing and flu testing. Recognizing that the virus carries no passport and respects no borders, Israel has opened its facilities and medical know-how to its neighbors. Read about it here.

It is not uncommon for major threats in societies to exacerbate divisions and tensions that are already inherit in the structure of the society. But sometimes having an external and common threat can unite people and awaken within them a realization of the interconnected and fragile nature of the world in which they inhabit.

Case in point: The Black Death.

The Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, was a pandemic that repeatedly ravaged the Asian and European continents from the 14th century until the 17th century. Its first outbreak in Europe was in 1348-1351 in which it killed somewhere between one-third to one-half of the population. It returned to wipe out roughly 20% of the population in 1360; 13% in 1369; 12% in 1375; and so on, returning every six to nine years up until the 17th century.

Here is a 14th century account of the plague:

In the year 1349 there occurred the greatest epidemic that ever happened. Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea, and it was greater among the Saracens than among the Christians. In some lands everyone died so that no one was left. Ships were also found on the sea laden with wares; the crew had all died and no one guided the ship. The Bishop of Marseilles and priests and monks and more than half of all the people there died with them. In other kingdoms and cities so many people perished that it would be horrible to describe.

In Europe, the plague also sundered the relationship between Jews and Christians – Christian blamed and persecuted the Jews for precipitating the Black Death by poisoning the wells. Historians estimate that hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed as a result.

In the Middle East, however, a different response took place. By and large not only were minorities not persecuted, but in some places the disease had actually brought different communities together.

An example of this comes from the pen of the 14th century Muslim scholar and traveler, Ibn Batutta (I have written about him before). On his visit to Damascus Ibn Batutta witnessed the way the disease had united the cities’ monotheistic communities. He recounts:

After the dawn prayer next morning they all went out together on foot, holding Korans in their hands, and the amirs barefooted. The procession was joined by the entire population of the town, men and women, small and large; the Jews came with their Book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, all of them with their women and children. The whole concourse, weeping and supplicating and seeking the favor of God through His Books and His Prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday.

The citizens of Damascus did not have anything like our epidemiological knowledge (even though Muslim doctors had already discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases), but they knew enough to understand that they were facing something that was bigger than themselves and their world-views.

Of course one hopes that a regional pandemic does not come to pass. But if it does, let’s also hope (and act) that it will serve as a catalyst for positive cooperation and coexistence. Yeah, yeah, I know, when pigs fly.


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