The Human Spirit: Accepting help graciously

Being a nation in a global community means having reciprocal relationships with other nations. Sometimes you give and sometimes you receive.

December 10, 2010 15:37
Peres and Netanyahu thank foreign firefighters.

peres_netanyahu_thank you. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Thank you, Greece. Thank you, Russia. Thank you, Bulgaria. Thank you, Turkey and Jordan, Switzerland, Croatia, Norway, Jordan, the US, France, Italy, Britain, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

You came to our aid to fight the massive, menacing Carmel Forest fire.Turning on the news last Saturday night after Shabbat, I expected to see a parade of the foreign arrivals, views of the international firefighters facing the roaring flames side-by-side with us. I anticipated a tribute to the courage and good-heartedness of the men and women who came to put out the fire. I was looking forward to interviews with pilots who had scooped up seawater or sprinkled flame retardant, in a symphony of helicopters and planes conducted by our own air force chief Ido Nehushtan (a former student of mine – this such a small country). Such coverage featuring the foreign firefighters was conspicuous by its absence.

Instead, we saw charred forests and gutted homes, mostly in Ein Hod, witnessed efforts by villagers to preserve their homes in Usfiya and a heard variety of complaints. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had to remind the nation that asking for help is not a shame. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon wrote a piece in these pages about gratitude being an essential pillar of Judaism, like the tikkun olam that stands behind our own efforts. But other columnists regretted the shame of begging- – yes, that was the word – the world to help us.

As often happens, parallel debates took place at our Shabbat Hanukka table, divided between those who were intensely embarrassed by our call for help and others who thought it was, as the prime minister said, “heartwarming” that the world reached out to us for a change.

I’m with the prime minister on this one, pleased and admittedly surprised that all those nations leaped to our aid.

That’s not to say that I’m not concerned with the sloppy and reckless manner we’ve treated fire-fighting. The paradox is that each of us who lives here knows firsthand that despite our talents as spunky innovators the day-to-day government services, be they educational or judicial, are often less-than-satisfactory. Budgets are always so tight that wherever we can, we try to get away with spit and polish and native improvisation. Organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh and AACI help immigrants cope with the hurdles of inefficient bureaucracy and infrastructure with recognition that daily life is not – as the old Jewish Agency poster once said – a rose garden.

We’re embarrassed but not really surprised that our fire departments are ill-equipped and riddled with neglect and protectionism. I cringed, three days into the international effort, to hear a representative of the firefighters crowing on the air about the having “the best firefighters in the world.”

Please, no self-aggrandizing hyperbole.

WHEN DISASTERS happen we’d obviously prefer to be the one giving succor than the one receiving. I still get emotional when I tell visitors of our teams turning matza-boxes into incubators after a Pessah earthquake in Turkey, convincing pediatricians in Ethiopia that it’s worth investing in treating infants who are HIV positive, dispatching trauma-expert psychiatrists to Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Just last January, our medical team in Haiti drew deserved kudos around the world for providing the fastest, most professional medical relief, an amazing achievement for a tiny, 61-year old country. I’m sure we’ll continue to send rescue teams and field hospitals in the future.

But that said, there isn’t a nation that’s not vulnerable to both man-made and natural disasters. It’s hubris for us to think we’ll never need the help of the international community.

I was 12 years old in Connecticut when I volunteered to tutor an Israeli girl new in our town in the art of diagramming sentences, a complicated method once used to teach grammar. Few of my fellow American-born students liked it or could do it. The newcomer’s English was just rudimentary and she never got the diagram right. Yet, she kept on insisting in a way that annoyed me as a preteen that the material was “very easy.”

That Sunday took place a long time ago, but I still remember how puzzled and annoyed I was. Only after being an Israeli myself, I realized how threatening it is to admit that some things are hard for us and that we need help. Fighting fires is hard and dangerous, whether you live in California or Russia or Haifa.

Our forests are beloved, planted tree by tree by the JNF, supported by the Jewish community of the world. Still, it makes good sense that nations with extensive forests have greater experience and better equipment. Can you remember when the classic example of a Russian immigrant who needed retraining was that of “forest engineer,” hundreds of whom had been employed in the great forests of the Soviet Union? Is there any wonder that the Russians would have better fire-fighting ability than us?

The reluctance to focus on the foreign helpers goes much deeper, of course. It stems from our national nightmare of having to rely on the kindness of nations for our survival.

Which made it ironic that in the week of Hanukka, when we herald our victory over Hellenism, we had a valiant team from Greece in our northern skies helping us. Being a grown-up nation in a global community means having reciprocal relationships with other nations. Sometimes you give and sometimes you receive. So thank you nations for your efforts. You gave us a rare taste of the much vaunted normalcy that we so long for in the international arena.

And thank you Prime Minister Netanyahu for making an immediate site visit, for recognizing the size of the problem, for not being too proud to recognize the need. Imagine what would have happened if he had been too worried about the mocking of the Iranians and their Hizbullah lackeys or hadn’t had the confidence to admit we were in trouble. Imagine where we’d be if we hadn’t asked for help.

Imagine how we’d feel if the other nations hadn’t come.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.

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