When Firefighters From Abroad Came To Jerusalem
Thu, 12/16/2010
Special to the Jewish Week

A unique event occurred in the Old City of Jerusalem on December 7th – foreign armies marched through the narrow alleys of the ancient city – parading fast towards the Western Wall.

Many armies have ventured here before – some while fighting (such as the Israeli paratroopers in 1967) – some in peace (such as the British in 1917), but never in its 3,000-year history, has a multinational coalition of armies on official duty marched through the gates of Jerusalem. But that is what happened as firefighters, pilots and military personnel from 17 countries who had come to Israel’s side to put out the Carmel fire descended on the Old City before returning home.

It was the sixth day of Chanukah and the city was crowded with domestic tourists. It was also the day after the horrific fire was finally extinguished.

The vibe in Jerusalem that day was that of "the morning after the war ended." That day, a sense of unity and togetherness trumped the everyday issues that divide Israeli society. By the next morning, all would return to normal - to the routine of tit-for-tat political warfare, to the culture of noise, to the inter-sectarian frictions.

But on December 7th, the last day of Kislev, there was a veritable calm. That day, the Old City served as the unlikely meeting place for tourists from what some call the “State of Tel Aviv,” taking advantage of school vacation, and the local residents of Jerusalem. The chasm between Israel's two largest cities continues to grow. Arguably, the social distance between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is greater today than the social distance between New York City and London.

Jerusalem becomes more Orthodox and more American, while some elements of Tel Aviv become religion-averse and increasingly post-ideological. Jerusalem inches toward being more strict and orderly while Tel Aviv becomes more “creative” - motorcycles riding on sidewalks, smoke-filled bars, and to some extent, a fluid relation to rules and regulations.

Jerusalem is spiritual, and Tel Aviv is rated one of the world's top cities for its beaches, culture and nightlife. As Israelis celebrated Chanukah, a natural tension ensued between those two sub cultures.

Israel is in need of a new narrative, one that will bridge those two points of view and encompass and integrate the astonishing string of accomplishments across multiple disciplines, one that will capture what it means to be an Israeli in 2010, some sort of Zionism 2.0.

What that narrative is remains a matter of great debate, but on this one day in Jerusalem -- December 7th -- the country harnessed its matchless energy and spirit with purpose and conviction: while celebrating Chanukah, Israelis were reminded of the tragedy of the fire and of what unites rather than divides them.

One cannot ignore the tragic symbolism of the fire: Young Jewish cadets and senior police commanders were killed along with their Druze brethren as they went on a dangerous mission to rescue mostly Palestinian prisoners from the fire as it spread towards the jail where they were held. And Palestinian firefighters, along with other Arabs and Muslims joined the international forces to help Israel defeat the deadly fire.

On that day, as fire was put out, 17 defacto delegations arrived in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. Most had never been to Israel, nor ever planned to go. As a result of their experience, though, some may become the next grassroots ambassadors for Israel.

Observing the faces of the Swiss soldiers, of the Croatian pilots as they descended the stairs toward the Western Wall after days of firefighting, there was excitement in their eyes, perhaps a look of surprise at the magnitude of the moment and from the attention and outpouring of gratitude from passersby. Who of them could ever have imagined just one week prior that they would be standing in Jerusalem.

A Croatian officer, clearly moved, was approached by a rabbi as he walked toward the Kotel. A tear came to his eyes as the rabbi shook his hand and simply said "Thank you."

Just another day in Jerusalem.

Gol Kalev is a member of the board of directors of the America-Israel Friendship League.

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