The Fires This Time
Tue, 12/07/2010

While the now-extinguished fires in northern Israel were an unimaginable catastrophe for the tiny nation — which, more than almost any other, cherishes its trees — there were heartening aspects of the fatal disaster.

Nations around the world, some highly critical of the policies of the Jewish state, were quick to offer and send aid, much of which proved critical in subduing the blaze. While the reaction in some parts of the Arab world was predictably hostile, perhaps the outpouring of help and support from countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Egypt suggests Israel is not as isolated and despised as many believe.

Also heartening was the quick response of American Jews. JTA has documented the long list of groups that have set up disaster relief funds, and by most accounts the Jewish community here is responding.

Some have raised questions about whether it is necessary for American Jews to donate money for needs that should have been addressed by the Israeli government. We disagree; at a time of overwhelming disaster, our communal obligation is to provide badly needed assistance now, ask questions later.

Less welcome are the questions raised by the Israeli government’s response to the fire. Were firefighters poorly equipped and trained, and if so, why? Does the Interior Ministry, under the direction of Shas leader Eli Yishai, give short shrift to critical national needs while focusing resources on haredi religious institutions and settlements?

And why did Yishai reportedly turn down an offer of badly needed firefighting equipment from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews? It’s hard to imagine how religious parochialism could trump pressing national needs, but that appears to be the case in this situation.

To his credit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded quickly and forcefully to the disaster. Even political rivals praised him for recognizing early on the need for international help and for not being swayed by misplaced national pride in asking for assistance.

What matters now is that the government ensures that this kind of disaster, apparently compounded by human and governmental error, doesn't happen again. That will take forceful leadership and a willingness to create mechanisms to investigate the government's response to the disaster and ensure that woefully inadequate firefighting manpower and equipment are bolstered. It will also take a willingness to act quickly and decisively on the conclusions without regard to political considerations.

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