Carmel conflagration brings out the best in Israelis – and their leaders?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-8-10

Natural disasters are social stress tests, plunging national communities into extreme conditions bringing out the best – or worst – in them. Natural disasters are also political stress tests, highlighting politicians’ strengths and weaknesses. Israel’s fiery festival of lights demonstrated once again how magnificently Israelis rise to communal challenges, rushing to help one another, acting generously, selflessly, heroically. But the question remains: does Israel have the political leaders this honorable citizenry merits?

This Hanukkah, the spirit of community altruism spread as rapidly as did the Carmel Conflagration’s flames. Much of the attention has focused, justifiably, on the heroic safety officers who risked their lives – or tragically sacrificed their lives – to fight these lethal Chanukkah lights. Day after day, radio announcers at the top of each hour read the names of those prison service officers incinerated on their bus, as the coroners painstakingly identified their charred remains. The whole nation shared the agony of 52-year-old Ahuva Tomer, the Haifa police commander burned while trying to save the burning bus victims. And the cries of the mother of Elad Riven, the 16-year-old volunteer firefighter who died in the line of duty, still haunt us all. Without trying to compare the pain but simply quantifying the proportion of loss, percentage-wise, losing 41 safety officers in a country of 7 million is a much greater blow than America’s loss of 403 safety officers in a country of nearly 300 million on 9/11.

Beyond the sweaty, soot-encrusted, exhausted fire-fighters, armies of volunteers mobilized throughout the country to help, to hug, to hover.  After 1 AM on the fire’s first night, my 15-year-old daughter called in, reporting that at her school, the Israel Academy for Arts and Sciences, they had already started a “war room” and “hotline” connected to the organization “Lev Echad” One Heart (www.levechad.org)  mobilizing volunteers and raising money.

A young soldier on a short break from the army visiting us for candle-lighting asked to use our computer during dinner. Later, we discovered he was surfing for volunteer opportunities – and arose early the next morning to go North. My daughter reported that a typical phone conversation at their overwhelmed phone bank began with the caller asking “where do I go,” reporting the food cooked, the skills available, the offered service primed for giving.

And at the Yemin Orde Wingate Youth Village (yeminorde@yeminorde.co.il), as in so many other endangered places throughout the picturesque Carmel, Israel’s “little Switzerland,” many devoted residents and former residents overcame their natural instincts and rushed toward the flames to try helping. Shimon Solomon, an Ethiopian immigrant who graduated from Yemin Orde and now runs the acclaimed Aghozou Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, scrambled back to Yemin Orde just hours after arriving for a Chanukkah visit in Israel. This legendary village today services nearly 500 orphans. When he and his buddies, valiantly trying to save their beloved home, finally had to leave, Solomon first saved the community’s Torah scrolls, Of course, at Yemin Orde, and elsewhere, the expensive, torturous process of rebuilding must now begin.

Equally impressive was the way the intense red flames shined a spotlight on a more harmonious, patriotic, naturally multicultural society than the one reporters usually depict.  The first night, the head of Usfiya’s city council appeared on national TV. He spoke movingly, in a lyrical Hebrew, about how, once the fire ends, he and his fellow citizens will look out on a carpet of black rather than the sea of green that long sustained them. His pain was all too human; his patriotism evident; the fact that he is Druze was irrelevant. Similarly, many only discovered that Haifa’s  police commander was female when the tragic news of Ahuva Tomer’s being engulfed in flames became public.

This is the real Israel, the natural Israel, the inspiring Israel. It is an Israel blessed with an army that, like all democratic armies, undertakes many benign functions not just lethal ones. It is an Israel that demonstrates tremendous national unity, solidarity, and clarity of communal vision, especially when beset. And it is an Israel steeped in Jewish language, images, values and history.  Many contrasted the delightful, childlike lights of Chanukkah with the destructive flames, or rejoiced that, this Chanukah, the Greeks saved the Jews — sending firefighting equipment from Athens. At the Western Wall, one man praying intensely explained, “This is how I can help.  I am no fire-fighter but we are all brothers and sisters.”

Through the black smoke we also could glimpse a better future of international cooperation. Just decades ago, the idea of 100 uniformed Bulgarians landing in Tel Aviv or Russian planes bombing the Carmel would have been considered the first wave of a Soviet Communist invasion, rather than a welcome act of salvation from Bulgarian firefighters and huge Russian tankers bombing the fire with water.

Nevertheless, despite the inspiration and the optimism, reports suggested that government incompetence had crippled the country’s firefighting capacities. Word that interior Minister Eli Yishai turned down free firefighting equipment from generous Christians was particularly distressing.

Israelis want leadership. Israelis deserve leadership. Bibi Netanyahu cannot wait for an endless, bureaucratic board of inquiry to assess the damage. He must step in, identify the errors, and act.

If Yishai or another politician deserves firing, Netanyahu finally must understand that leaders lead by leading. Simply managing his coalition is shtadlanish leadership, ghetto leadership, like the court Jew who wheedled rather than wielding power. Netanyahu does not seem to appreciate how much more popular he would be, how much more powerful he would become, if he took some stands, drew some red lines, and fired incompetent or disloyal ministers. Israelis crave such a justified, overdue showdown.

Facing disaster, Israelis did their part. Now, Bibi Netanyahu must do his.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The  author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is also the author of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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