Commenting on the NY Times Article: For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort

Below is a New York Times article about the reactions of Israelis to Israel’s efforts to aid the suffering people of Haiti.  Following the article is a letter which I sent to Ethan Bronner, the author of the article.

January 22, 2010

JERUSALEM — The editorial cartoon in Thursday’s mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed American soldiers digging among the ruins of Haiti. From within the rubble, a voice calls out, “Would you mind checking to see if the Israelis are available?”

A week ago, ahead of most countries, Israel sent scores of doctors and other professionals to Haiti. Years of dealing with terrorist attacks combined with an advanced medical technology sector have made Israel one of the most nimble countries in disaster relief — a factor that Western television news correspondents have highlighted.

But Israelis have been watching with a range of emotions, as if the Haitian relief effort were a Rorschach test through which the nation examines itself. The left has complained that there is no reason to travel thousands of miles to help those in need — Gaza is an hour away. The right has argued that those who accuse Israel of inhumanity should take note of its selfless efforts and achievements in Haiti.

The government has been trying to figure out how to make the most of the relatively rare positive news coverage, especially after the severe criticism it has faced over its Gaza offensive a year ago.

“Israelis are caught in a great confusion over themselves,” noted Uri Dromi, a commentator who used to be a government spokesman. “There is such a gap between what we can do in so many fields and the failure we feel trapped in with the Palestinians. There’s nostalgia for the time when we were the darlings of the world, and the Haiti relief effort allows us to remember that feeling and say, you see we are not as bad as you think.”

“Now They Love Us,” was the headline Wednesday on the column of Eitan Haber, a close aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and a Yediot columnist. “In another month or two, nobody will remember the good deeds” of Israeli soldiers, he wrote. “The very same countries and very same leaders who are currently lauding the State of Israel will order their representatives to vote against it at the United Nations, proceed to condemn I.D.F. operations in Gaza, and again slam its foreign minister.”

Israeli journalists flew into Haiti with relief teams. And while the contours of the catastrophe have been well described, inherent in the coverage is the question of what Israel’s performance says about it and its place in the world.

Much noted has been the absence of rich and powerful Persian Gulf countries in the relief effort, a point made here when the 2004 tsunami hit large parts of Asia and Israeli relief teams swung into action there as well.

Many commentators argued that the work in Haiti was a reflection of a central Jewish value. Michael Freund, a columnist in The Jerusalem Post, wrote on Thursday, “Though a vast gulf separates Israel from Haiti, with more than 10,500 kilometers of ocean lying between us, the Jewish people demonstrated that their extended hand can bridge any gap and traverse any chasm when it comes to saving lives.”

But on the same page, another commentator, Larry Derfner, argued that while Israel’s field hospital in Haiti is a reflection of something deep in the nation’s character, “so is everything that’s summed up in the name of ‘Gaza.’ ” He wrote: “It’s the Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressibly tragic. And more and more, the Haiti part of the national character has been dwarfed by the Gaza part.”

Early in the week, Akiva Eldar, a leftist commentator and reporter with the newspaper Haaretz, made a similar point: “The remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza.”


Your article about the mixed feeling of the Israelis on the Haitian aid effort was indeed disturbing on several levels.

First of all, from my “liberal” perspective, it presented a disorienting turn around in that the right wingers endorse this relief effort, and it is the left that criticizes it.  For me, when the right supports humanitarian actions and the left opposes them, I feel I have either entered the Twilight Zone or some alternative universe.

Secondly, I simply cannot understand why those on the left have chosen to frame this as an “either-or” situation.  Why should they, who have compassion for the people of Gaza, choose to demonstrate that compassion by refusing to have compassion for the people of Haiti?  Would it not make more sense – and be far more consistent – to point to the efforts in Haiti with great pride and then say something like, “We need to show similar humanitarian zeal for the suffering people of Gaza”?  Is it just because I am an American Jewish liberal that I see it that way?

Thirdly, I do not understand how the Israeli left can fail to make an important distinction between the people of Haiti and the people of Gaza, that distinction being that the people of Haiti have not been firing rockets and mortal shells at Israeli communities and have not followed leaders who adamantly insist upon the total destruction of the State of Israel.  Yes, the people of Gaza are suffering, and suffering greatly – though still, their suffering cannot be compared with what the Haitians are going through at this time.  However, Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and Hamas has continued to wage war on Israeli civilian centers and continues to refuse to consider a negotiated peaceful solution to its conflict with Israel.  As for the people of Gaza, we have only witnessed demonstrations of their support of the Hamas terrorism; never their opposition to it.  I know that they themselves can be terrorized by Hamas, but still, no one from Gaza speaks out about peace.  No one from Gaza proposes that there can be a better way to resolve their differences with Israel.  There is a strong argument that silence equals assent.  The bottom line here is that Gaza is at war with Israel.  Haiti is not.  How can you compare the two when it comes to Israel’s responses?

Does this mean that I do not support the idea of Israel providing humanitarian aid to Gaza.  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  I do support it and support it vigorously.  I support it on two levels.

First, this is what Jews do and have always done.  When we see others who suffer, we feel commanded to intervene to help relieve their suffering, and we act on that feeling.  We act quickly.  We act compassionately.  We act generously.  As we have so acted in Haiti, I believe we need to so act in Gaza, even though we continue to be engaged in an armed struggle with Hamas.  Along those lines, there is a famous midrash (rabbinic story) that states that after the Red Sea closed in and drowned the Egyptian army, while the Children of Israel were singing and dancing on the redemptive shores, the angels in heaven joined the Israelites in their celebration.  Witnessing this, God rebuked the angels, crying, “How dare you dance and sing while my children are drowning!”  Even though the Palestinians of Gaza are our adversaries in this armed conflict, we cannot forget that they, too, are God’s children, and as such, worthy of our compassion.

Second, from a purely political perspective, I believe that the State of Israel would make more progress down the road to peace by treating the Palestinian people with humanity and kindness than they ever will through force of arms.  Sometimes the military option is unavoidable, as it was in both the Gaza War and the Lebanon War, for a nation cannot stand by passively when others are raining missiles on their citizens.  But the military option is only a last resort and it is rarely, if ever, a complete answer in and of itself.  The most effective path to peace is by transforming your enemy into your friend.  In the case of the Palestinians, this needs to be done by helping to lift this people up out of their poverty and degradation.  The more Israel works to bring the Palestinian people into a higher and finer quality of life, the closer they draw to a time of true Shalom – peace complete and pure.
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4 Comments on “Commenting on the NY Times Article: For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort”

  1. Me Says:

    Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

    • ravkarp Says:

      What do I see as the future for the Israelis and the Palestinians? That’s a tough one! What else is new? If anyone had the definitive answer to that question, they most certainly would be worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize!

      But needless to say, I have my own opinion, and that opinion is mixed.

      It has been my observation over the years that the Israelis can swing both ways, and it precisely that tendency which has enabled the militants among the Palestinians to play them like a yo-yo. The vast majority of the Israelis hunger for peace and would be willing to make major concessions in order to achieve it. However, while these Israelis yearn for peace, the also require security. And it is precisely that tension between the desire for peace and the need for security that the militants manipulate to obstruct any progress toward peace and swing the Israeli pendulum toward its security end. It seems that whenever peace threatens to break out in the Middle East, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade conduct one or more gruesome terrorist attacks which result in Israelis setting aside their commitment to peace and focus on their very real and necessary war on terrorism. I have always been fascinated by how often this cycle occurs on the eve of Israeli elections, with the effect of undermining the election of peace candidates in favor of hard liners.

      The same phenomenon occurs when it comes to Israeli humanitarian aid. The Israelis will provide food or medical supplies and the extremists will spread the rumor that these items have been poisoned or somehow tainted by the Israelis as part of a diabolical Israeli plot to destroy the Palestinian people. So, for example, when Israel would supply blood the extremists would spread the word that it is infected with HIV. The effect of such propaganda is obvious. Instead of that humanitarian aid opening up avenues of friendship between the two peoples, it is transformed into more reason for the Palestinian people to hate, fear and distrust the Israeli.

      All that sounds sadly hopeless, and perhaps it is. Perhaps the Israelis and the Palestinians have been condemned to exist forever bathed in blood and filled with hatred and paralyzing distrust. But in my heart of hearts I cannot accept such a prognosis. I continue to believe that when it comes to the Israelis, in the end, compassion will win out; that the Israeli people will always mourn the fact that their conflict with the Palestinians creates such human suffering and deprivation; that they will enthusiastically welcome any REAL opportunity to peacefully resolve this conflict, and more than willingly partner with Palestinian leaders who truly want peace and concord between them.

      But that is where we find the greatest challenge to peace. It is in finding Palestinian leaders who are farsighted enough to see that the best future for their people is a future in which they live side by side with the Israelis, as both neighbors and friends. Among the Palestinian people, there must arise those who speak in very different terms than do the extremists like Hamas; who speak of peace rather than war, of cooperation rather than destruction. So far, such voices have been few and far between, and when they speak, they tend to speak in hesitant whispers. Israel is desperate for such serious Palestinian partners in peace. It is not mere rhetoric when I say that the future of the Palestinian people is truly in their own hands, far, far more than it is in the hands of the Israe

  2. Alan Garfield Says:

    ME naively asks you “What do you see the future of this being?” (Israel/Palestinian conflict). Rabbi, you have tremendous patience as a teacher. But enough is enough. I would love to respond to ME with a simple, “You’ve got to be kidding? What kind of a question is that?” I’d probably say more, but regret it later. My answer to such a question might have involved the need for the writer to unpack his question before it justified an answer in any way. I’m a teacher, but THAT much patience, I am afraid, I just don’t have.

    Oh and one other item… In spite of all this, you gave a direct answer, or at least a great introduction to some of the complexity involved.

    Keep it up. I enjoy your blog as I enjoy reading your sermons.

    • ravkarp Says:


      Thank you for your kind words about my response to Me. You said, if you were to respond, you would have said… Well, by posting your response, I believe that you did say it.

      Actually, I am not nearly as bothered as you seem to have been by the Me’s sweeping question. In fact – and I hope you are reading this, Me – I was extremely flattered, for Me is actually the first complete stranger (I assume Me is a stranger) who has posted a comment on this blog. I am flattered that Me sought it out, read it, and chose to comment on it; all the more so since Me wished for me to expand on my thoughts. You see, I was a long time getting to the point when I would do this blog in the first place. Rabbi Michael Samuel had been encouraging me along these lines for some time now. However, I could not understand how anyone would ever come to discover and read it, considering how vast is the universe of cyberspace. I feared I would be spending my time sending my thoughts into some greater void, only to endure a solitary, lonely eternal existence, only to possibly be visited by dear and loyal friends such as yourself. But finally, I relented and decided, What the Heck? Me’s comment has proven that assumption wrong. Me is only one person, but to know that I have reached one new person affirms what I am doing.

      Yes, Me’s question is one of those ultimate questions; one of those questions that, if someone had the definitive answer, the world would be dramatically changed for the better. And yes, ultimate questions can appear to be frustrating. However, we do ourselves a disservice when we decide to ignore those ultimate questions because their scope is just so overwhelming. It is precisely those ultimate questions which we continually need to attempt to answer. We need to do so, in full knowledge of the fact that our answers will be dramatically incomplete and will need to be revisited time and again. That in and of itself is a vital process, for that is how we grow. As our answers evolve, so do we.

      I do like your suggestion of asking me to unpack his/her question. That is great pedagogy. Perhaps, Allan, that is why you are a professor and I am but a country rabbi. Such unpacking not only helps to break such a broad question down into more specific, manageable parts, but it helps the one asking it to clarify for him or herself what it is that really trouble them about the issue.

      So, Alan, I am deeply grateful for your protective concern. And Me, keep asking your questions.

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