People getting around Israel with wheelchairs, canes and crutches are a common site. After decades of war and terrorism – and a high incidence of traffic accidents – Israel has one of the world’s highest percentage of citizens with disabilities. About 600,000 according to most estimates. Israel also boasts one of the world’s best records of helping people with disabilities.
Since the 1950s, when war-injured Mishka Ben-Naftali designed an innovative wheelchair for athletes, and Israel looked to rehabilitate the victims of the war, the Holocaust and a polio epidemic, the country has established a reputation as a world leader in treating the disabled.
In his new book, “Doomed to Glory” (Milo Publishing House), Moshe Rashkes focuses on one aspect of this — the role sports play as a rehabilitation tool. Wounded in the 1948 War of Independence, he served for decades as chairman of the Israel Disabled War Veterans Organization and director of the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled (iscd.com; U.S. office,  922-1780), which is run by the ILAN foundation for the handicapped. The center hosted the 1968 Paralympic Games.
Rashkes was in New York recently on a fund-raising mission.
The latest sign of success: Israelis won six medals at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing (swimmer Inbal Pezaro, who won three silvers, was named The Jerusalem Post’s Sports Personality of the Year), bringing Israel’s all-time total to over 350. By contrast, Israeli athletes in the Olympic Games have won a total of seven medals.
Q: Why is that while Israel does not have a great record in the regular Olympics, Israeli athletes have excelled in the Paralympics?
A: In professional sports, the purpose is to achieve a record. In rehabilitative sports, it is a different mentality – the purpose is to return you to life, to be an independent person. Sports for the disabled has a purpose to motivate you to be stronger, to be more courageous and to have persistence. You work more on your spirit. [Athletic success] is a by-product. In this case, it is a very successful by-product.
Who is the Michael Jordan of Israeli sports for the disabled?
It is Baruch Hagai, who is legendary. He excelled in basketball, he excelled in table tennis – he was world champion in table tennis three consecutive times. He got the  Israel Prize for sports. He has contributed to society, involved in all kinds of charity. He has worked for the Center for over 20 years as a voluntary coach.
When Mexico City backed out of hosting the Paralympics in 1968, Israel agreed to do it on short notice. How did they manage to do it?
Miracles, purely miracles. We rely on miracles in Israel.
Itzhak Perlman trained at your center when he was younger. What sort of athlete was he?
He was a good athlete, [but] his greatness was not in the field of sports. His greatness was in music. He participated in swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, field events. He’s one of our supporters. We are very proud of him.
Christopher Reeve visited your center in 2003. What was that like?
Reeve was in a bad physical situation when he came to Israel; he died quite a short time after. He had the opportunity to see other disabled moving, playing, doing something to change their situation. His coming to Israel was a great encouragement for the disabled. He was an example of success despite his terrible disability.
There are often complaints that non-military sides of Israel don’t get the funding they need, because of the security situation. Is Israel doing enough for the disabled?
Israel is doing a lot for the disabled, but it is never enough. Because the needs of the disabled are endless. What Israel has done in the area of accessibility is not enough, without any doubt.