Arab dies saving drowning Jew

August 12, 2000, 02:53 AM

- When Omri Jada, a 25-year old Palestinian drove off last Friday to the Sea of Galilee for a break from the August heat, no one here realised it would be the last they would see of the likeable, hard-working young man.

Instead of having Omri back in their midst day, his relatives were kissing and hugging Giorgy Labtif, the six year old Jewish child whom Omri had saved from drowning, sacrificing his life in the process.

Omri died early Monday, last week, in a hospital in the northern city of Tiberias, where he was taken after washing up on the beach unconscious Saturday.

The trading of places in death comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in Palestinian-Jewish relations due, in part, to anti-Arab racist remarks made Saturday by Israel's most powerful rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. The rabbi said, among other things, that all Palestinians are "snakes" and that God regretted creating Arabs.

Sipping watery coffee from tiny cups, many of the dozens of mourners in Omri's village of Habla, 20 kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv, interpreted Omri's death as a rejoinder to the rabbi.

"This is an answer to Yosef," said Omri's father, Abdel-Halim. "A snake kills a human being. My son saved a human being."


Grieved family

Omri, who left behind a pregnant wife and two small children, was not a very good swimmer, his relatives recalled. But when he heard Giorgy Labtif crying for help, he decided anyway to try to save him.

"The small child entered the water and went far away," said Mohammed, a cousin who cannot swim and witnessed the tragedy unfold from the beach.

"The child tried to come back, but couldn't. He began to cry, Omri went to rescue him. He took the child in his arms and tried to return (to shore) but couldn't. The current took him away. Omri cried out 'I can't come back, can anyone rescue me?' A man swam over and took the child from Omri. Omri gave him the child. We could see Omri bobbing up and down. We thought he was swimming. But at one point, he disappeared."

An Israeli woman swam around searching for Omri, but could not find him, Mohammed said. After about 20 minutes, he washed up on the beach, unconscious. An ambulance arrived about 35 minutes later, Mohammed said.

While the Israeli woman was searching for Omri, she found Giorgy's four-year old sister Dima, also in the water and also in trouble. She rescued her, according to Tanya Labtif, Giorgy's mother.

"Omri gave life not only to Giorgy but also to Dima," said Tanya Labtif, who immigrated to Israel from Vladivostock four years ago.


An Arab “died for my child”

"What feeling can I have when someone has died for my child? I feel guilty that Omri died," she said. She went to Habla Monday to thank the Jada family-and console them.

Ironically, hours after Omri drowned, rabbi Yosef declared in Jerusalem that all Arabs are "snakes" and "despicable scoundrels" and that God "regrets" ever creating them.

The anti-Arab remarks went largely uncondemned by Israeli politicians, who instead took issue with other comments by the Rabbi which appeared to blame the Holocaust on its victims, by saying they were reincarnations of sinners.

While rabbi Yosef is reviled by many secular Israelis, his views are significant because he is a political kingmaker, using the popularity of the Shas party which he founded to help determine the rise and fall of prime ministers and presidents.

Referring to Arabs as the descendants of the biblical Ishmael, the half-brother of Isaac, rabbi Yosef said: "The Ishmaelites are all despicable scoundrels. All of them are haters of Israel. The Holy One, blessed be he, regrets that he created these Ishmaelites."


Anti-Arab remarks

His words evoked applause from Shas stalwarts. Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office declined to comment on them. Nor was there any reaction from president Moshe Katzav, who was elected last week due in part to the support of rabbi Yosef.

But among Palestinians the comments registered strongly as a blatant example of anti-Arab racism.

"I don't think Omri was a snake," said Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Knesset. "He was a human being and a fine one at that. The real venom of snakes can be found in the words of rabbi Yosef."

"I look at this first of all as a courageous act of a human being who exchanged his life for that of another," added Avraham Paritzky, a liberal Jewish legislator who came to console the Jada family. "He did not ask about Jewish or Arab, he simply did the right thing. And I am honored to be here in memory of such a person."

Copyright © IPS-Inter Press Service.