As Jewish organizations scramble to muster aid to a northern Israel scorched by a wildfire the government was hard-pressed to contain, the relief effort has triggered a debate over who should pick up the tab for an evident lack of preparedness.
In his blog on The Atlantic Monthly’s website, Jeffrey Goldberg, a former IDF soldier and author not known as an Israel critic, questioned in a series of posts why Jews in the diaspora should absorb the firefighting costs of a government that presides over a thriving economy, and one that has been widely acclaimed for its technological innovation.
“Israel’s per capita GDP is nearly $30,000,” wrote Goldberg. “Israel is a rich country. The fact that it doesn’t possess adequate firefighting equipment is its own fault. The fact that the leadership of its fire service is incompetent is its own fault. At some point, the good-hearted Diaspora Jews who still think of Israel as a charity case are going to have to tell their cousins to learn to fully fund basic services like firefighting if they want to be thought of as citizens of an advanced country.”
Goldberg, whose posts have ignited their own firestorm of feedback, is not alone in rapping Israel’s government. Writing in The Jerusalem Post on Monday, Daniel Gordis, without addressing the fundraising campaigns, noted that the catastrophe, which cost 42 lives, pointed to a jarring lack of preparedness as well as infrastructure problems and bad decision-making, such as the order to send into the fire zone a bus full of prison-guard cadets that was consumed, killing everyone aboard as well as the Haifa police chief. That horrific incident accounted for nearly all the casualties.
“The real issue is that just beneath the veneer of this startup nation with its hi-tech firms, its glistening Tel Aviv glass and chrome towers and its luxury hotels lining the beaches of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, this is a country plagued by ailing and unsupervised infrastructure,” wrote Gordis, who is senior vice president of the Shalem Center think tank. “The most honest moment of the entire Carmel Forest catastrophe came Thursday evening, when a fire service spokesperson virtually cried in an interview with Channel 2, saying that the country was completely out of fire-fighting materials, that equipment wasn’t working, and that somehow the fire had to be stopped, because ‘the State of Israel is at stake.’ ”
The debate is already reaching U.S. philanthropic circles. Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, said he would advise donors not to rush into commitments related to the fire.
This time around, Israel’s spontaneous, perhaps desperate, response was evident in a story circulating from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s press office involving the city’s deputy fire commissioner, who, at the request of the consulate here, worked the phones last Thursday to find a supply of fire-retardant foam.
“We don’t use it here in New York, where we only have occasional brush fires,” Deputy Commissioner Frank Gribbon said in an interview Tuesday. “So we turned to the U.S. Forestry Department.” That put Gribbon on the phone with companies in San Francisco and St. Louis that turned out to be subsidiaries of a company based in Tel Aviv, Israel Chemicals Ltd.
By the end of the day Gribbon had assurances that the Israeli company was sending a planeload of the foam to Israel.
“In a crisis, sometimes this is what happens,” said Gribbon of the irony.
The Jewish National Fund has kicked off a $10 million campaign for fire relief, with $500,000 already sent to Israel. The organization will refocus its previously scheduled benefit concert on Dec. 12 at Hofstra University on Long Island, originally intended to raise money for a reservoir, toward reforestation and aid to the victims.
The Atlantic’s Goldberg suggests that instead of contributing to JNF, concerned donors should consider victims of the fire such as the Yemin Orde orphanage near Haifa, which was severely damaged in the fire.
JNF CEO Russell Robinson, said Goldberg’s assertion that the government should go it alone “shows a complete lack of understanding and ignorance.
“The same could be said about the U.S. and [Hurricane] Katrina or special campaigns for floods or mudslides or wildfires in Montana or 9/11. That means we should only be dealing with things for which are prepared?”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted on Tuesday the difference between the government of Israel asking for money, which it has not done, and supporters of the Jewish state wanting to show solidarity through checkbooks and donation boxes.
“This is a response by a Jewish community that feels they want to help,” said Hoenlein. “There are legitimate internal questions that have to be addressed about how much infrastructure they have and how the response was delayed. But it’s very hard for any country to have the capacity to handle something they haven’t experienced before. To sustain the fleet of airplanes you need [to fight forest fires] is difficult for any country.”
“People are distorting this as some sort of embarrassment that the country feels they have to appeal for help.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Goldberg said that while the government has not directly asked for donations, “it doesn’t have to have its hand out because it knows the JNF will get diaspora Jews to [donate] so they can waste money on whatever they waste money on.”
He said since his initial blog post he has heard from supportive Israelis who also oppose what Goldberg calls “schnorring” for fire equipment funds.
“They’re big boys in the Israeli government,” said Goldberg. “They’ve had years of incompetence on this issue. The air force got out of the fire suppression business 10 years ago. Are you a ‘startup nation’ or not?”
He was referring to a book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer subtitled “The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.”
In a blog linked to Goldberg’s, Yaacov Lozowick, a Jerusalem historian, noted that given the magnitude of the drought-fueled flames as they raced through the forest, it is not likely that any level of preparation would have made a significant impact. Still, Lozowick noted that “Israel is a sovereign country with a functioning state, and we’ll deal with whatever needs to be dealt with. Lost lives are lost forever, but all the other parts of the story will be fixed; even the charred forest will eventually recover, though it may take a generation.”
Donations, he said, are better sent to earthquake relief in Haiti or flood relief in Pakistan.
But even as the last embers smolder, there are no signs of the fundraising abating, as Jewish organizations here open their hearts and wallets to help Israel, often in the spotlight for helping other countries in their times of need, cope with its own large-scale disaster.
Funds have been established by the Jewish Federations of North America, American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. AJC said on Tuesday it will make an initial donation of $100,000 from its Israel Emergency Assistance Fund and will sponsor tree-planting ceremonies for ambassadors of countries that helped quench the flames, including Azerbaijan, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Holland, Italy, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.S.
J Street, the pro-peace-process lobby, announced on Monday a $10,000 donation to match an additional $10,000 the lobbying group will raise to help rebuild damaged communities in the north. “Many of us have spent considerable time in the north — hiking, living, and exploring a lush and fascinating part of Israel — and some of us have family and friends affected directly by the fires,” said the Washington-based organization in an e-mail. “We want to do our part.”
The Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel each called on their member congregations to help. The OU established its own fund, the OU-Forest Fire campaign, while Young Israel will collect funds for the Israel Trauma Coalition, an organization formed to help communities in the north affected by missile attacks during the 2006 war against Hezbollah. The coalition partners with more than 60 organizations to deliver services. Both the OU and Young Israel promised to absorb administrative costs to enable 100 percent of donations to go to Israel.
Also pitching in is the American fundraising arm for the University of Haifa, which established an emergency appeal with a multi-million dollar goal to provide humanitarian support to the university community. “Our students and faculty live in the communities threatened and devastated by the fire and the campus itself is vulnerable,” said Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, the university’s president.
Goldberg said he personally donated to the Jewish Federation of North America emergency fund and plans to go to Israel in two weeks with his family in search of a volunteer opportunity.
“I feel this very deeply,” he said. “And it’s because I feel it so deeply that I’m pissed off.”