FEATURE: Israeli official finds ways to lend a hand in Taiwan

LIKE-MINDED: Israeli Representative Raphael Gamzou said he sees similarities between the philosophy that drives Buddhist humanitarian work and Jewish beliefs

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Nov 11, 2007 - Page 2

Volunteers at a recycling station in Jianghu Jade Market are often helped by a foreigner in a gray T-shirt on the weekends, drawing the attention of passersby.

Talking with the foreign helper, local residents are surprised to hear that he is Israeli Representative to Taiwan Raphael Gamzou.

Speaking of his experiences as a Tzu Chi recycling volunteer during an interview with the Taipei Times on Oct. 21, Gamzou said that "conversation like this is the most touching moment for me when mingling with people in Taiwan."

"If I need to talk about the Middle East conflicts and the Israel-Palestine peace process, or to develop relations between Taiwan and Israel in scientific, agriculture or economic level in the jade market, I am not sure I would be able to do it there," Gamzou said.

"But this is fine," he said.

Gamzou said that volunteer work had a special significance for him, adding that "it expresses our solidarity with the people of Taiwan."

Gamzou assumed his position in Taipei in September. While preparing for his post in Taiwan, Gamzou read about the local Buddhist Tzu Chi foundation, known for its international humanitarian projects.

"It really struck me when I made these readings. Tzu Chi helps people in Taiwan and out of Taiwan without any distinction between races and religions," he said.

Soon after Gamzou arrived in Taiwan, he contacted Tzu Chi and expressed his interest in helping with their relief work.

At Gamzou's invitation, Israeli vocalist David D'or gave benefit concerts to raise money for the organization.

When Gamzou met Master Cheng Yen (證嚴法師) the first time, he racked his brains to think of an appropriate present for her, he said. In the end, Gamzou had trees planted in her name in Jerusalem's Forest of Peace.

"We planted 18 trees in the Forest [on behalf of Tzu Chi], because in Hebrew, the meaning of 18 is `life,' which corresponds to [Cheng Yen's] ideas very much -- the concerns about the globe, about the environment and about the need to protect the nature," he said.

Speaking of his impression of Buddhism, Gamzou said he"found a lot of similarities between the Jewish thoughts and some of the ideas of the Buddhism, and definitely the interpretation of Buddhism of Master Cheng Yen."

In Judaism, "one of the most beautiful answers to the very basic question of what is the meaning of our being here is tikkun olam," he said. "Olam in Hebrew is the world, the globe, and tikkun is repair."

"God creates the world, prepares for us the infrastructure. We cannot just sit back. Each one of us should invest energy and thought about how to make it better -- more justice, more generosity and more care, [the] same ideas I find in Buddhism," Gamzou said.

Gamzou said the belief that people should make the world a better place was one reason to oppose the emergence of Neo-Nazis in Taiwan.

In March news broke that a fascist organization inspired by German leader Adolf Hitler had applied for official status in Taiwan. Gamzou met at the time with Minister of Education Tu Cheng-sheng (杜正勝) to discuss the matter.

Gamzou said his concerns over the group were not a reaction to anti-Semitism.

The Israeli representative said the key issue was the "ignorance of history," adding that he felt Taiwan should be concerned about what had led a group of youths living in a democracy to adopt "Hitler, the most extreme example of dictatorship, of cruelty, of racism or of bigotry."

"Today the group doesn't hate Jews, but tomorrow it might hate Filipinos here. Because according to the ideology of Hitler, a racist, some races are superior and some races are inferior. They might hate the Filipinos or Indonesians," he said.

Israel is ready and willing to help the government by sharing its experiences in educating youth about "the darkest chapter" of history, Gamzou said.

He said he suggested Tu send groups of educators to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel's memorial to Holocaust victims. Yad Vashem's courses on teaching about the Holocaust and racism draw teachers from all over the world.

Gamzou said that although he had met with Tu since March and made further proposals on education to combat racism, the education minister had not responded to the suggestions.