Debate Over ‘Schnorring’ For Fire Trucks

In wake of historic fire, should Jewish money from U.S. pay for Israeli government’s ‘incompetence?’

12/07/10
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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.

"When a tragedy of this magnitude happens our immediate and appropriate response is to want to help," said Charendoff.
 
"That doesn't mean the most readily apparent opportunity to help is the best course in this case. There is much we don't know, in particular about the help that is going to be needed in terms of rebuilding. We don't know the extent that losses will be covered by the government by national insurance and private carriers. We are encouraging our members to take a deep breath and take a coordinated approach with the government and NGOs on the ground to determine what the real needs are going forward and how philanthropy can play an effective and appropriate role."
 
With regard to equipment that is normally purchased by Israeli taxpayers, Charendoff said, "I'm not sure why that kind of equipment isn't being provided by the government. I would personally wat to see an argument as to how this is the responsibility of diaspora Jews."
 
Israel, one of the most sparsely forested nations, has about 1,400 firefighters protecting 7.6 million people. The state appeared out of its league in responding to an earlier catastrophe, again in northern Israel, when in 2006, Hezbollah rockets smashed communities near the border as Israeli troops routed terrorists from southern Lebanon. Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was assailed for inaction and embarrassed when a Russian-born billionaire, Arcadi Gaydamak stepped in to facilitate the evacuation of thousands of residents.

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.”

Last Update:

12/10/2010 - 15:17

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As a Torah observant Jew, I look at the bill that would grant millions in state funding to yeshiva students and then weigh that against the lack of life-saving fire-fighting equipment. Saving lives has to have the higher priority. Shame on those who do not understand that this is part of what Torah teaches us. What is the point of studying Torah if we do not live according to it. I also object to the fact that Interior Minister Eli Yishai turned down donations of firetrucks - he says they are traif - from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews because the donors were Christians. Food can be traif, not people - especially people who would show kindness to Israel. Again, read your Torah.
Most of Israel's lack of preparedness can be placed directly at the doorstep of the minister of the interior, Rabbi Eli Yishai, who thinks that he took his oath to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, mentor of the Shas ultra-Orthodox party, and not to the State of Israel. Rabbi Yosef said the fires were the result of the lack of proper Shabbat observance in the north of Israel; he should tell that to the Druze arsonist. Coupled with his lack of education past high school, Yishai has shown himself on this and other occasions to be a total incompetent and that he should be fired from his job--the fire service is his responsibility. Two years ago he began to refuse all help from an interfaith group of Christians and Jews that had already donated eight fire trucks and wanted to do more in that regard. Rabbi Yosef declared that the interfaith nature of the assistance made it trafe. In the parliamentary system of government which Israel has, when a disaster of this magnitude occurs, the minister in charge is supposed to accept responsibility and tender his resignation. Shalom, Rabbi Yishai.
The range of insights and commentators is inclusive and impressive. Good unbiased report about money and needs.
It is now terue that Israel, a country always the first in helping other countries in need of help, was unprepared for the tragic fires it sustained costing 42 precious lives and millions in damages, especially the millions of trees destroyed whixch wqill take many years to replace. Ans as always, I would hope that its brethren in the Diasora will come to its help.
We Jews are our own worst enemies.........We love to rip ourselves apart. Enough already. We weren't prepared. We asked for help and we got it. Thank you everyone that helped. Why do we always have to analyze everything and then share it with the entire world. They're having a wonderful time listening to Jews talk about their own fallacies and inadequacies! I decided to send money to an organization that's feeding those who are without homes. Every organization is asking for money yet we have no idea where the money's going. The same thing happened with Haiti......The next step is for Israel to find out what happened, rectify it, and make sure it never happens again. Thanks for listening!
In Vienna (Austria) the Misrachi-congregation collects money for a specific village where 20 houses have been destroyed. And the Jewish congregation of Austria collects for helping in general those victims who had to be evacuated. And having read this very strange article here, I want to tell you, that I AM PROUD OF LIVING IN A COMMUNITY WHERE THIS IS NO QUESTION! Of course people of the Carmel-region need help now! And it is not an issue whether they are Jewish or Druze or Christian or Muslim or whatever! (After all, among the mostly hurt are the Druze towns on the Carmel who are strongly depending on the tourism which itself depended on the forests...) That Israel has to discuss the quality of the infrastructure in the Carmel region is a different issue. But what a crazy idea to withhold help from someone who went through a catastrophe, only because he might have been better prepared! - And living in a European country I can see very well whenever I stay in Israel that Israel is NOT that rich.
The point is that no one explains why the money is needed urgently since the country is not Haiti. But the fundraisers want to get to the possible donors whose empathy takes away their rationality for the moment. It is not exactly a moral moment, though definitely very sad, and reflective of Modern Israel, too busy being arrogant.
I'm not sure why the Orthodox Union and Young Israel are singled out in this article, while the Conservative (masorti.org) and Reform (arza.org) fundraising efforts are ignored. It should be known that these two denominations have done very well in raising funds in response to this tragedy.
I thank Adam Dickter and Jewish Week for this timely story. It hit upon the zeitgeist and rumblings I have heard. I was one of reportedly 690 on the JNF conference call last week, and listening to the JNF leadership made me cringe at their hyperbole trying to cajole dollars from donors (from black to green).
Yes, it's a damned shame Israel has to spend money to defend herself and her citizens against enemies who would delight in her demise, instead of fire trucks. I understand dance therapy projects are woefully underfunded in Israel as well. Perhaps the Jewish Week can solicit Mel Gibson to write an editorial on how Israel discriminates against the arts. Israel faces challenges like no other democracy on the planet. Enough with self righteous navel gazing.
Unlike the disgraceful Jeffrey Goldberg, Dan Gordis did not suggest that Diaspora Jews should not donate money to help Israel in its time of need. Israelis have not known a moment's peace in 62 years, sending their children off to war while spending an inordinate portion of their budgets on weapons (instead of fire trucks) simply to survive. Suggesting that fellow Jews in the US who have the luxury of living in peace and security should punish Israelis by withholding donations is nothing short of nauseating. Shame on you. I mean, really.
The fact that Israel wasn't adequately prepared is a tragedy, and a deplorable ambarassment for the government; I am not disputing that. The current reality though is that the country wasn't prepared and needs financial assistance to stop this from happening in the future. If this happens again, then the anger is justified, but if this is the red flag that there is a problem, and that problem is fixed, then there is little else we can do but continue on and learn.

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