I read the article in the New York Times on January 22nd with dismay.
No, this was not about the paper itself. It had nothing to do with a poorly-chosen photo, a misleading headline, or a lack of balance or context. Rather, it dealt with an all-too-familiar story being reported – the instinct for Jewish self-destructiveness.
Entitled "For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort," referring to the response to the earthquake in Haiti, the article was best summarized by the following excerpt:
"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 always 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."
Forgive me, but this is nuts.
Israel responded magnificently to the immense tragedy unfolding in Haiti. Both the governmental and non-governmental sectors were on the scene almost immediately. The Israeli field hospital, by all accounts, quickly became the finest medical unit in the country. Grateful Haitians even took to naming children born in the facility "Israel." Israeli rescue-and-relief teams found survivors in the rubble and restored them to life. Other Israeli units are providing a range of basic services to a population whose needs are almost impossible to grasp.
The Israeli effort far exceeds the nation's small size and dwarfs the response of many larger countries. Of course, some countries, most notably in the Arab world, shamefully sat on their hands, doing nothing in the face of a human calamity.
Cynics would suggest that Israel had some narrow, self-serving interest for helping, but there is none, other than a life-affirming desire to alleviate suffering. Haiti is the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, its voting record on Israel-related issues at the UN is nothing to write home about, and the Jewish community on the island is infinitesimal in size.
Israel's role in Haiti should be a source of national pride, not a trigger for a "Rorschach test."
In fact, Israel's quick action in Haiti is nothing new.
There is a long and proud record of Israel's response to international humanitarian crises, reflecting the state's core values.
I visited an entire prefabricated town that Israel built in Turkey after a devastating earthquake, in 1999, destroyed thousands of homes.
I saw the Israeli field hospital in Macedonia set up to assist Muslim refugees from neighboring Kosovo, who were driven out of their land by Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing campaign.
I recall Israel's offer to assist Iran – yes, Iran – after a powerful earthquake hit Bam in 2003, when more than 25,000 people were killed. Tehran rejected the offer, presumably preferring some of its citizens to die rather than be rescued by Israelis.
And the list of Israel's lifesaving efforts goes on, at times in countries with which it had no formal diplomatic ties and where its initiatives, while welcomed by the beleaguered nation, nonetheless had to be kept below the radar.
Few countries react so quickly and consistently as does Israel when it comes to mobilizing emergency responders at a moment's notice.
Indeed, few countries react so quickly and consistently as does Israel when it comes to mobilizing emergency responders at a moment's notice. The volunteers arrive on the scene with no fanfare, go immediately to work, and set a standard for professionalism and courage.
Yet, according to the Times' story, all of this, at least for a few Israelis, is in the end rather meaningless as a source of national pride. Instead, the litmus test for Israel must be Gaza.
This is when self-reflection turns to the instinct for self-destruction.
Gaza has declared itself an enemy state. It is run by Hamas, whose goal is the annihilation of Israel. Anti-Semitism runs rampant throughout the Hamas Charter and the blood-curdling statements of its spokesmen. The smuggling of ever more lethal weapons into Gaza is a top priority. Iran is Gaza's foremost state patron.
Of course, it didn't have to turn out this way. In 2005, at great political risk, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew all Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza. The unilateral disengagement offered local residents their first chance in history for self-rule. Moreover, Jewish donors, as a gesture of peace and reconciliation, purchased the Israeli-built greenhouses in Gaza and presented them to the Palestinian Authority. These were meant to form part of a new foundation of economic and social development.
It was in Israel's vital national interest to see Gaza thrive as a society committed to construction and coexistence.
Alas, it was not to be. Hamas ousted the PA and seized power in a bloody civil war. Israel's brief re-entry into Gaza in December 2009 was an inevitable outcome of daily provocations that no sovereign nation could have long abided.
And yet today, bizarrely, there is, it seems, a convenient convergence between a consummate "blame culture" and at least a few notable representatives of a consummate "guilt culture."
While leaders of Gaza strikingly abdicate all responsibility and blame everyone but themselves for the misfortunes of their land, according to the Times, some in neighboring Israel anguish over Israel's purported responsibility for Gaza's travails.
One could argue that this is eloquent testimony to their ethical reflex, their desire to heal the world of Gaza. That might well be laudable but for the simple fact that Gaza is at war with Israel, a seemingly obvious proposition to all but those Israelis blinded by their own self-generated "guilt," which prevents them from confronting reality and those ultimately accountable for the facts on the ground.
Were circumstances different, would Israelis offer help in Gaza as they have in Haiti, Turkey, the Balkans, and elsewhere? I have no doubt. In fact, Israel would doubtless do far more, given the proximity and the stakes.
Meanwhile, no national self-examination is required. Rather, Israel should be immensely proud of its role in Haiti – and what it reveals about the national character. As a friend of Israel, I certainly am.