This past May, I had the pleasure of interviewing IDF search and rescue officer Yuval Klein on Instagram as part of Camera on Campus’s #ThisisZionism Campaign. I believe that Yuval embodies the Zionist spirit.

Yuval served on numerous Israeli humanitarian aid missions to help communities in need impacted by natural disasters, structural failures, and other crises.

When asked why Israel sends rescue delegations in the first place, Yuval, without hesitation, explained that this is the only appropriate response in times of hardship. Yuval believes bringing healing and goodwill to people around the world — regardless of their faith or religion — is at the heart and soul of Zionism.

Zionism is the movement for the liberation of the Jewish people that gave birth to the State of Israel, forever freeing Jews from oppression and persecution. Now, as a thriving nation, Israel has the power to share its strength and resources with those in need.

The IDF Search and Rescue unit, which Yuval belongs to, recently responded to the 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake. According to the Philanthropy Center for Disaster, the earthquake was ranked at a magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale. It caused severe damage to villages, towns, and cities in Turkey and Syria.

Yuval was also one of 150 Israeli soldiers sent to Turkey after a devastating earthquake. Upon arriving there, Yuval and his team assessed the damage. “The scene was apocalyptic. We drove through piles of rubble. Without electricity or natural gas, we took scrap wood to light fires to stay warm.”

Yuval saw multiple search and rescue delegations from various countries on the ground. Yuval explained that while in Turkey, he was selected to join 24 other soldiers to go into another city (Antakya) on the border of Turkey and Syria. He described the population in that city as quite hostile, with supporters of the Iranian regime and ISIS affiliates mixed in with civilians.

Yuval’s team received orders to rescue the head of the Jewish community of Antakya and his wife, who were missing after the earthquake. The 25-person unit, half special forces, half rescue officers from other commando units, traveled anonymously throughout Turkey to reach Antakya.

Yuval described the arduous journey: “We removed our badges, ranks, and the Israeli flag from our uniform. The road was 200 kilometers south of the city we went to initially. It was supposed to be a three-hour drive, but conditions were treacherous; roads and bridges were in poor condition, and we even experienced two aftershocks while driving. It took us 11 hours because we had to stop often to clear the road. Our commander made some courageous decisions. We wanted to turn around and return at many points because there were many signs that it could be unsafe.”

Nevertheless, Yuval and his team decided to stay the course.

Eventually, the team reached the town and searched for the head of the Jewish community in the rubble of his home for 48 hours. While at the house, Syrian soldiers surrounded the Israeli delegates.

Concerned about a hostile altercation, Yuval recounts his split-second decision: “I did not want to put us at risk. As a blonde ginger with blue eyes, I told the Syrians that I was Dutch. I ordered the other IDF soldiers to stay inside a house.”

Eventually, the team found the Jewish family buried under the rubble of a nearby apartment. Unfortunately, they did not survive the earthquake. They carefully gathered their remains and prepared them for transport to Istanbul for Jewish burial. The soldiers returned to their camp, having completed their mission safely.

Reflecting on his time in Turkey, Yuval realized this was a special operation because his team usually prepares and trains for three to four months for such an effort.

“We take time to cover our bases. We gather intelligence and tactfully plan our strategy.” However, the earthquake did not give the IDF that luxury. Yuval explained, “You can never plan for a natural disaster. We had no choice but to improvise.”

Yuval is proud to be an ambassador for one of the world’s most moral and selfless militaries, whose mission embodies the Talmudic concept made famous by the Oscar-nominated film Schindler’s List: “he who saves one life… saves the entire world.”

And this is but one of many ways that Israel helps those in need. Just one other example is the work of the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid (IsrAAID), a cooperative of Israeli nonprofit and government agencies.

Yuval Klein is a humanitarian aid worker. Yuval is an Israeli. Yuval is a proud Zionist. Despite efforts to demonize the State of Israel and the IDF on college campuses and elsewhere, the truth will always prevail through the actions of people like Yuval, who are willing to put their lives on the line for others.

Miriam Blum is a CAMERA on Campus fellow at Tel-Aviv University. 

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