Makom Briefing: The Carmel Fire

A favorite Hebrew song by Yoram Tahar-Lev contains the chorus:

A mountain green throughout the year
I dream and hope
To breath your winds like it used to be
To lie in your shadow – Carmel

From last Thursday, these words took on a tragic and painful new meaning as a massive fire swept through the Carmel National Park. 42 people were killed. 17,000 residents were evacuated. Some 4 million trees were destroyed, and tens of homes engulfed in the firestorm. The ongoing drought and high winds fanned the fires as the flames devoured the dry timber.

Some 30 planes from around the world – including Greece, Turkey, Russia, Britain, and the United States – worked alongside Israeli fire fighting teams and emergency crews in a concerted effort to extinguish the flames. Three fire trucks from the Palestinian Authority joined the international team.

Throughout the last weekend, Israeli television and radio devoted ongoing coverage to the biggest ecological disaster that the State of Israel has ever faced.

Alongside the funerals that took place throughout Israel and the prayers for those who have been hospitalized in fighting the fire, there is a deep cloud of sadness over Israel for the loss of life, and the extensive damage to one of Israel’s rare natural treasures – the Carmel forest known as ‘Little Switzerland.’ The restoration of the nearly 20% of the scarred Carmel Forest will be a decades long national project.

Pride and Pain

Alongside the tremendous sense of loss is also an enormous sense of pride in the fire fighters, police, and accompanying security forces battling non-stop an inhuman enemy who needs no rest, and whose appetite is insatiable. Teams made up of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze Israelis worked shoulder to shoulder. On Saturday night, fire fighting officials announced that the situation was moving towards control, however, estimates suggested that between three days to a week may be needed in order to douse the fire.

There is also no small amount of pride in statements over the weekend by Jewish leaders around the world pledging to assist Israel in rebuilding once the smoke clears.

Being Prepared …

Alongside the enormous sense of pride in Israel’s emergency services is also an painful sense that the State of Israel was unprepared to contend with the Carmel disaster. Although the State of Israel is a world technological leader, a member of the prestigious OECD, and has built one of the world’s most impressive military forces; the State of Israel was poorly prepared for tackling the Carmel fires. Firefighters struggled valiantly with antiquated equipment, the lack of a unified central command, and with a shortage of personnel. The Washington Post reported:

In a country as small as Israel, where territory is at the heart of political conflict, every inch of land is especially precious. Nevertheless, Israel has neglected to invest in the equipment and personnel needed to effectively combat wildfires that have become pervasive in recent years amid unseasonably high temperatures and periods of drought. In a country of 7 million, there are only 1,500 firefighters.

A recent Interior Ministry report gathered comparative information from OECD and IOL (International Labor Organization) sources regarding the state of Israel’s fire fighting services in light of those same services in other developed countries. The study found that on all parameters – compared to 26 countries including the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus – Israel possesses the weakest firefighting services in the Western World.

As far back as the year 2000, the chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, David Azoulay, who also currently chairs the committee, said: “The state of the fire service at this time borders on scandalous.” But the condition of the fire service simply got worse.

Although it is heartening that the international community responded with open arms to Israel’s request for aid, it is saddening, and even embarrassing, that the State of Israel was largely unprepared to contend with a civilian emergency situation of the scale of the Carmel conflagration. On the one hand, Zionism called for the Jews to return to ‘the family of nations.’ One the other, Zionism focused on creating a self- sufficient Jewish society that was able to care for itself, especially during times of crisis. It could be that these two threads are not separate, but rather interlocked. It is only when a community can help itself, can stand on its own two feet that it can rejoin the ‘family of nations’ as a dignified, contributing member. And regardless of ideological concerns, Israel needed international assistance to face down the Carmel fire.

In the case of Turkish aid to the Carmel campaign, regardless of tensions surrounding last year’s Gaza flotilla, the Turkish government’s extension of aid is in no doubt informed by the 250 person Israeli team that came to Turkey’s aid in the face of the August 1999 earthquake. Bottom line and regardless of the current Israeli and Turkish leadership’s mutual disdain, both states realize that they share an interest in ultimately blocking Iran as a nuclear power.

A culture of ‘it will be OK‘ won the day over the kinds of careful planning needed by Israel in facing civilian emergencies. Unfortunately, from the Agranat Report following the 1973 Yom Kippur War to the Winograd Report following Israel’s 2nd Lebanon War, the dangerous implications of a culture of improvisation coupled with a lack of accountability are like kindling waiting for a match. In a situation of war – and analysts suggest that Israel’s next war will directly impact on Israel’s civilian centers in an unprecedented way – the international community will not be as magnanimous as it has been over the past weekend. Even Israel’s friends will hesitate to place their military and emergency personnel in danger during a conflict between Israel and its neighbors.

No doubt that Israel is in mourning. There is no doubt that based on Sunday morning’s radio broadcasts, TV coverage, and newspapers, Israel is also very angry. There can also be no doubt that the Israeli public will demand that the government provide answers to the reckless lack of preparedness and to the challenges that the future holds.

Ron Ben Yishai, one of Israel’s premier analysts was particularly sharp in Burning Down the House:

This served as further evidence for a rule identified by historians a while ago: The moment a regime neglects the national, physical and human infrastructure and allows them to crumble, the state’s or empire’s collapse as a functioning body able to provide physical security and the vital needs of citizens begins. This is what happened to the Roman and Ottoman empires, and to states like Yemen and Cuba in this day and age. This may also happen to us.

In the face of pain and great loss, the Government of Israel, the State of Israel, and the People of Israel recall the damage done, the sacrifices made, and the losses endured. Because of all this, what lessons need be learned to avoid future tragedies? In a country whose basic cultural credo proclaims ‘love for the land,’ what need we do to care for the land and its residents?

The story is told:

After the burning of the First Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem, the exiles marched in mournful train, their backs turned towards the pillars of smoke that was once the capital of David and Solomon. Jeremiah accompanied them along the road, and offered comfort to the refugees. At a certain point, Jeremiah turned back towards Jerusalem, knowing that even among the ruins, the survivors would need his wisdom and aid. As he turned to depart from Jerusalem’s exiles – ‘they raised their eyes and saw Jeremiah leaving them. A cry arose from among them and they screamed aloud and said, “Father Jeremiah – you are our comforter!” An they quoted, “on the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and mourned Zion.” Jeremiah turned and answered, “As the heavens and earth are my witnesses’ if you had shed a single tear while you were still in Zion – you would not have been exiled.” (See Haim Nahman Bialik & Y.H. Ravnitzky, Sefer Ha’Agaddah, (Dvir: 1948) p. 108)

Rebuilding

For many Israelis – particularly for those families who this week buried their loved one – rebuilding will be a long process that will never be completed. For those residents of places like Beit Oren, Ein Hod, Ein Hud, Nir Etzion, Ussifiya, and the Yemin Orde Youth Village their loss of property, of memories, and of years of hard work invested in all that it means to build a life will hopefully grow back with vigor like the very forest itself.

Alongside the challenges discussed above, Israel has been characterized by a kind of resilience, of creativity, and of solidarity – particularly in times of difficulty. Several Israeli rabbinic figures looked to the heavens in order to explain the Carmel fire. Following the Biblical verse ‘it is not in the heavens’ (Deut. 30:12), Alon Tal, one of Israel’s outstanding environmental pioneers and activists, at the closing of his environmental history of Israel, Pollution in the Promised Land, seems to call us back to an affirmation of our care of the land, and of a sense of responsibility that is courageous facing past mistakes, and diligent in taking on new challenges as we continue to take part in the building and rebuilding of Israel.

And so it is important to remember that it is not divine decree, but human ambition, myopia, negligence, and sometimes greed that brought these curses to the land. Precisely because the people of Israel created their many environmental problems, they were also blessed with the collective wisdom, wealth, laws, technologies, and passion to solve them. The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge. More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads – offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This ‘last chance’ to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its environmental history, Israel will once again choose life.

Questions

  • As you read the unfolding story of the Carmel fire, what are the sources of pride and of shame for you?
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented that ‘It’s no shame to ask for help.’ regarding the international aid that Israel requested to contend with the fire. How do you make sense of the role of the international community’s aid? Would you agree with P.M. Netanyahu’s comment above? How do you understand Israel’s receipt of international aid in light of Israel’s aid to places like Turkey or Haiti?
  • The support and concern and financial aid of the Jewish world is heartwarming and will be put to good use. With that said, can Jewish communities express solidarity with Israel at this time through activities in addition to financial aid?
  • Some Government ministers voiced the opinion that while the fires still burned, the public discourse should focus on comforting the security forces and families of the fallen. In a vibrant democracy like Israel, how do you understand the criticism in the press regarding government responsibility for contending with the Carmel fire? What would you consider responsible criticism and how does your definition of ‘responsible’ change during times of crisis?
  • Consider the points raised by Ron Ben Yishai in light of the Talmudic legend about Jeremiah and the exiles of Jerusalem. In what ways is the story of Jeremiah applicable to our current situation?

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