The Human Spirit: Accepting
December 10, 2010
Barbara Sofer , THE
Being a nation in a global community means having reciprocal
relationships with other nations. Sometimes you give and sometimes you
Thank you, Greece. Thank you, Russia. Thank you, Bulgaria.
Thank you, Turkey and Jordan, Switzerland, Croatia, Norway, Jordan, the
US, France, Italy, Britain, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
You came to our aid to fight the massive, menacing Carmel Forest fire.
Turning on the news last Saturday night after Shabbat, I expected to see
a parade of the foreign arrivals, views of the international firefighters
facing the roaring flames side-by-side with us. I anticipated a tribute
to the courage and good-heartedness of the men and women who came to put
out the fire. I was looking forward to interviews with pilots who had
scooped up seawater or sprinkled flame retardant, in a symphony of helicopters
and planes conducted by our own air force chief Ido Nehushtan (a former
student of mine - this is such a small country). Such coverage featuring
the foreign firefighters was conspicuous by its absence.
Instead, we saw charred forests and gutted homes, mostly in Ein Hod, witnessed
efforts by villagers to preserve their homes in Usfiya and a heard variety
of complaints. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had to remind the nation
that asking for help is not a shame. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon
wrote a piece in these pages about gratitude being an essential pillar
of Judaism, like the tikkun olam that stands behind our own efforts.
But other columnists regretted the shame of begging - yes, that was the
word - the world to help us.
As often happens, parallel debates took place at our Shabbat Hanukka table,
divided between those who were intensely embarrassed by our call for help
and others who thought it was, as the prime minister said,"heartwarming"
that the world reached out to us for a change.
I'm with the prime minister on this one, pleased and admittedly surprised
that all those nations leaped to our aid.
That's not to say that I'm not concerned with the sloppy and reckless
manner we've treated fire-fighting. The paradox is that each of us who
lives here knows firsthand that despite our talents as spunky innovators
the day-to-day government services, be they educational or judicial, are
often less-than-satisfactory. Budgets are always so tight that wherever
we can, we try to get away with spit and polish and native improvisation.
Organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh and AACI help immigrants cope with
the hurdles of inefficient bureaucracy and infrastructure with recognition
that daily life is not - as the old Jewish Agency poster once said - a
We're embarrassed but not really surprised that our fire departments are
ill-equipped and riddled with neglect and protectionism. I cringed, three
days into the international effort, to hear a representative of the firefighters
crowing on the air about the having "the best firefighters in the
Please, no self-aggrandizing hyperbole.
WHEN DISASTERS happen we'd obviously prefer to be the one giving succor
than the one receiving. I still get emotional when I tell visitors of
our teams turning matza-boxes into incubators after a Pessah earthquake
in Turkey, convincing pediatricians in Ethiopia that it's worth investing
in treating infants who are HIV positive, dispatching trauma-expert psychiatrists
to Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Just last January, our medical team in
Haiti drew deserved kudos around the world for providing the fastest,
most professional medical relief, an amazing achievement for a tiny, 61-year
old country. I'm sure we'll continue to send rescue teams and field hospitals
in the future.
But that said, there isn't a nation that's not vulnerable to both man-made
and natural disasters. It's hubris for us to think we'll never need the
help of the international community.
I was 12 years old in Connecticut when I volunteered to tutor an Israeli
girl new in our town in the art of diagramming sentences, a complicated
method once used to teach grammar. Few of my fellow American-born students
liked it or could do it. The newcome's English was just rudimentary and
she never got the diagram right. Yet, she kept on insisting in a way that
annoyed me as a preteen that the material was "very easy."
That Sunday took place a long time ago, but I still remember how puzzled
and annoyed I was. Only after being an Israeli myself, I realized how
threatening it is to admit that some things are hard for us and that we
need help. Fighting fires is hard and dangerous, whether you live in California
or Russia or Haifa.
Our forests are beloved, planted tree by tree by the JNF, supported by
the Jewish community of the world. Still, it makes good sense that nations
with extensive forests have greater experience and better equipment. Can
you remember when the classic example of a Russian immigrant who needed
retraining was that of "forest engineer", hundreds of whom had
been employed in the great forests of the Soviet Union? Is there any wonder
that the Russians would have better fire-fighting ability than us?
The reluctance to focus on the foreign helpers goes much deeper, of course.
It stems from our national nightmare of having to rely on the kindness
of nations for our survival.
Which made it ironic that in the week of Hanukka, when we herald our victory
over Hellenism, we had a valiant team from Greece in our northern skies
helping us. Being a grown-up nation in a global community means having
reciprocal relationships with other nations. Sometimes you give and sometimes
you receive. So thank you nations for your efforts. You gave us a rare
taste of the much vaunted normalcy that we so long for in the international
And thank you Prime Minister Netanyahu for making an immediate site visit,
for recognizing the size of the problem, for not being too proud to recognize
the need. Imagine what would have happened if he had been too worried about
the mocking of the Iranians and their Hizbullah lackeys or hadn't had the
confidence to admit we were in trouble. Imagine where we'd be if we hadn't
asked for help.
Imagine how we'd feel if the other nations hadn't come.