The Heart of Israel
Rabbi Maurice, March/April 2010
When the January Haitian earthquake struck, the Israeli government quickly dispatched a critical relief team to help. People all over the world were in awe of the skill, compassion, and expertise that the Israelis provided. By many news accounts, the Israelis were the fastest to get organized upon arriving into the chaos. Israel sent over 220 people, including search and rescue units, EMTs, medical personnel, police, social workers and therapists.
They speedily set up a first class field hospital capable of treating 500 patients a day. Rescue crews pulled Haitians from collapsed buildings while Israeli doctors treated wounds and delivered babies. Ultra-Orthodox volunteers with ZAKA, an organization known for searching for body parts following terrorist attacks within Israel, went to Haiti and worked straight through the Sabbath because it is a mitzvah to violate the rules of Shabbat if doing so will save human life. At the time of this writing, Israeli cabinet ministers were considering inviting Haitian orphans to be eligible for adoption by Israeli families. This skillful compassion in the midst of crisis is something Israelis are great at, and it is a side of Israel that isn’t often seen in mainstream media.
In the days that followed this expression of compassion, the cynical (and typical) propaganda politics of the Middle East emerged. Israel-haters floated meshuggah conspiracy theories, including one extremist Islamic group that warned that Israeli teams had gone to Haiti in order to harvest human organs for Jewish use (!). Others accused Israel of responding solely out of a desire to gain good international press. Meanwhile, some in the pro-Israel camp forwarded emails trying to score political points by claiming that Israel had stepped up for Haiti, but the Arab/Muslim world had done little by comparison. (The truth is that Saudi Arabia made the largest financial aid gift of all Middle Eastern states, $50 million, and countries like Jordan quickly dispatched a field hospital and six tons of relief supplies. Jordan also has had a 700 member UN peacekeeping force in Haiti for a long time, and 3 of their soldiers died in the quake.) As has always been the case, the reality is that Israel is neither the devil that its worst critics paint it to be, nor is it the shining jewel in the crown of humanity, as some of its most ardent advocates claim.
In Haiti Israelis showed a dimension of who they are that we who live outside Israel generally don’t see, because the only aspect of Israel that fascinates media is the Arab-Israeli conflict. But there’s so much more to Israel than the conflict. (The same could be said of the Palestinians.) Israel’s support to Haiti is an opportunity for us to stop and look at the larger picture of who and what Israelis are. Israelis put their hearts on display in Haiti, and they have big, generous hearts. And they’re good in a crisis and eager to help when distress calls are sounded in other parts of the world. People who know Israeli society well, whatever their political positions on the conflict, know that this is nothing new.
For decades, Israel has made a commitment to offer aid and emergency support to countries around the world, and what Israelis have done in Haiti is part of that larger story. (You might want to look up MASHAV, the Israel Agency for International Development Cooperation. Over 60+ years, MASHAV’s humanitarian relief division has aided over 140 countries.) What we saw Israelis do in Haiti was something that shouldn’t be distorted by the conspiracy theories of Israel-haters, nor should it be cheapened by silly attempts at political point-scoring by Israel’s advocates. Let the mitzvah speak for itself.