Israeli doctors bring cataract eye treatment to the developing world

They shuffle in one by one, and though it’s broad daylight outside, to them, their life is shrouded in darkness. They are the patients of MASHAV eye camps, which have popped up across Africa to aid people with cataracts.

In Western countries, cataract removal is an inconvenient, but quickly treatable procedure. But in the developing world, cataracts often translate into blindness.

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At these eye camps, established by MASHAV (a Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation), Israeli doctors administer a quick procedure that restores their sight.

“Once you have Israeli doctors in these camps conducting very simple procedures, they are literally eye-openers,” Ambassador Gil Haskel, the head of MASHAV said. “They come in blind, and within 30 minutes of treatment they have full vision. Once they open their eyes, the first thing they see in front of them is an Israeli doctor and an Israeli flag, and that is always very heartwarming.”

For 60 years, MASHAV has offered nourishment on many levels to the developed world. From agriculture to water sustainability and medical treatment, Israel has harnessed its impressive arsenal of innovation and exported that know-how to the countries that need it most.

It was a vision of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, who saw Israel’s mission to not only be an independent and successful homeland for the Jewish people, but also to be a beacon of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and present itself as a light unto the nations.

“For Israel, development cooperation is both a moral and a political issue, and from both aspects Israel must look upon such aid as a historic mission,” Ben-Gurion said, according to MASHAV’s website.

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“Quite miraculously, the goals that were established by David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir remain quite intact up until today, and that shows the amazing vision of those personalities,” Haskel said. “They envisioned an institution which enables Israeli know-how to spread around the developing world and bring the unique Israeli experience of rapid national development to countries that were unchaining themselves from foreign colonialism and gaining independence.”

Despite, its success, in many ways MASHAV is Israel’s best-kept secret. As negative stories about Israel abound in the West, in the developed world, MASHAV’s work has resulted in a positive image for the country.

“Although maybe in Israel many people don’t know about MASHAV, it is a synonym for Israel in all those countries. When you travel in the developing world, Israel is MASHAV and MASHAV is Israel,” Haskel said.

MASHAV’s work is featured in the latest Christian Broadcasting Network’s offering on Israel, To Life: How Israeli Volunteers Are Changing the World. The documentary features five organizations which aid the millions around the world who are subjugated, hungry and thirsty.

“This film brings a totally refreshing and new light as to what Israel is doing in the world. Such a film like this one gives a very fresh image of Israel that comes to life,” Haskel observed.

“We wanted to tell the real story of what Israel is doing,” CBN CEO Gordon Robertson said about the film at The Jerusalem Post Conference in April. “One of those real stories is how a tiny nation the size of New Jersey is punching way above its weight class in providing humanitarian aid around the world.”

Today, MASHAV operates in 132 countries, including some which don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel.

“One basic principle that we abide by is that we do not condition Israeli aid by race, religion or diplomatic relations. We will work with anybody willing to receive Israeli assistance,” Haskel stated. “We always deliver this message to countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. Some countries receive this message with open arms and are happy to develop relations with Israel; some do not.”

Oftentimes, it is the work of MASHAV that lays the foundation for formal diplomatic relations further down the road. He points to the recent re-establishment of ties with Guinea two years ago as one example.

Another, more prominent example is China. The country is in awe of Israel’s agriculture innovation and rapid trajectory from an agrarian society to become the Start-Up Nation in a matter of decades – the exact path China is quickly following in its own right and on a much grander scale.

“Undoubtedly, this partnership contributed to a positive image of Israel in those countries and it was much easier to form diplomatic relations with a country once an Israeli presence is already there,” Haskel explained.

China is an example of when the winning formula of aid and innovation come together to the benefit of Israel and the country it is assisting.

Prof. Amram Olmert – the elder brother of former prime minister Ehud Olmert – is one of the preeminent experts in Sino-Israeli agriculture cooperation. He served as the counselor of agriculture in the Israeli Embassy in China and was a visiting professor at four universities there. Today, he is an independent consultant to Israeli and Chinese companies in the agriculture realm.

“One of the first steps in Israel-China cooperation was in the agriculture industry,” Olmert explained.

In 1993, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin encouraged Chinese premier Li Peng to establish a demonstration farm in China that would be an example of Israeli agri-tech innovation working in concert with Chinese locals.

The farm was a game-changer, Olmert says.

Since then, Israel has provided courses on agriculture to thousands of farmers, with locals also coming to Israel to study.

“In a way we can say that we have done a ‘revolution’ in the Chinese agriculture,” Olmert said.

“I don’t think there is any other organization in Israel that does what we do,” Haskel said. “Millions of families and communities have benefited from this Israeli gift.”

This article was written in cooperation with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

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