Hero of Israel: Michael Ben Zikri

Jews and Arabs mourned together

Israeli couple Tali and Michael Ben Zikri were married in February, right before COVID-19 sent the country into lockdown. After Israel started to open up in July, the couple from Ashdod – who’d spent their entire married life under quarantine – decided to venture out for a fun day at the Shiqma Reservoir, a man-made lake in the south of Israel.

As the newlyweds relaxed by the water, they noticed something horrifying: a woman and three children appeared to be struggling in the lake. Without a moment’s pause, Michael rushed into the water. Using all of his strength, he pulled the four victims from a sinkhole in the shallow lake and saved their lives. Sadly, he had no more strength left to save himself. When the paramedics arrived, onlookers told them Michael, the rescuer, never emerged from the water. A short time later his lifeless body was found. Besides his wife, Michael left behind three children.

The women and children Michael saved were Bedouin Arabs from the nearby town of Hura. The Israeli Foreign Ministry shared the story on social media in Arabic and Farsi, and the heartwarming yet tragic post immediately went viral. Yonatan Gonen, the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic-language social media manager, was the one who posted the story of Michael’s heroic act. He said, “This is a touching story that couldn’t leave users from Arab states indifferent, even those who are hostile to Israel. Users from Morocco to Iraq, from Oman to Syria, could identify with the story and unanimously pointed at Michael’s heroism on a very large scale, some even pointed to Israel’s coexistence as a role model.”

Michael Ben Zikri was laid to rest in Ashdod.  His wife Tali remembered, “He was a good man, there wasn’t a second thought that he wouldn’t try to save that family.” Michael’s childhood friend, Minister of Religious Affairs Ya’akov Avitan remembered, “Anytime a person was in trouble, Michael was the first to help. What he did on Friday wasn’t an act of heroism to him, but a way of life. He gave all his life, and this time too, he was the first one to jump in the water.” Many residents of Hura, the Bedouin town where the rescued family lived, attended to show their deep appreciation for Michael’s brave sacrifice. Many of them held signs thanking Michael and praising his heroism. A relative of those rescued told Channel 13 news, “Today it’s hard to find a hero like this. The entire family apologizes for what happened.”

Michael has become a hero throughout Israel and the Middle East. Talab El-Sana, an Israeli Arab politician who served in the Knesset (Parliament), attended the funeral and told Michael’s family that they did not grieve alone. “The Arab public is in mourning in the entire country from north to south. We will rename the main street in our town in his honor.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin announced that he has created a new medal to honor Michael Ben Zikri. He said, “I have decided to award, for the first time, a special commendation to Michael Ben Zikri, of blessed memory, whose actions set an example of outstanding civic action.” The Civil Medal of Distinguished Service will be presented to Michael’s wife and his three children at the President’s House in Jerusalem, after their week of sitting shiva ends. The woman Michael saved and her children, the al-Karem family, have also been invited.

In death, Michael Ben Zikri has become a symbol of brotherhood between Jews and Muslims. May Michael’s memory always be a blessing, and may his brave sacrifice never be forgotten. For saving the lives of four strangers, at the cost of his own, we honor Michael Ben Zikri as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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