Rattling the Cage: The pride and the shame

It's the Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressibly tragic. And increasingly, the Haiti part of the national character has been dwarfed by the Gaza part.

January 21, 2010 12:14
2 minute read.
Larry Derfner

larry derfner 58. (photo credit: d)


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The proudest moment I've experienced as an Israeli came in 1994 after the genocide in Rwanda. The news over here was full of stories about the IDF field hospital that was taking care of refugees, and I automatically assumed this was just more national self-promotion, something all countries do during a humanitarian disaster, the most vivid example being the giant-size, made-for-TV letters they print on the boxes of supplies they donate.

I'd gotten used to the local news stories about how we were donating $50,000 in aid to victims of this hurricane, $100,000 to victims of that earthquake, and I became very cynical. I imagined that Israel, with its Second World economy and 1/1,000 of the world's population, was doing its share, maybe a little bit more, yet the media here would carry on like we were leading the international relief effort. I figured the local stories about the field hospital for Rwandan refugees were more of the same sort of hype.

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Then a friend of mine who'd been working for a CNN crew in Rwanda stopped here on his way home to France. He was telling me about the incredible scene, and I asked him, cynically, about the supposedly legendary IDF field hospital, expecting him to say, "Huh?" Instead, what he said was: "That was the place. That was the place everybody knew about, where they knew to go to for help."

I thought: Wow. It was true. And then I thought: This screwy little country. Compared to America, Europe and the rest of the First World, Israel has nothing - and look what it's doing. And for the greatest, purest cause that could possibly be.

Yeah, I was proud.

AND NOW, 15 years later, it's happening again in Haiti. "I've been here since Thursday [and] no one except the Israeli hospital has taken any of our patients," Dr. Jennifer Furin of Harvard Medical School told CNN. Walking past the IDF's medical tents, CNN reporter Elizabeth Cohen said: "I'm just amazed at what's here. This is like another world compared to the other hospital." Other leading US and British news media reported the same thing.

This time around, though, I'm not surprised. Over the years, Israel has become a bona fide world leader in disaster relief, best known for pulling survivors out of rubble and for healing victims under olive-green tents.

Bill Clinton praised the Israelis for bringing a lot of "battlefield hospital experience" to the task, and that's true: This country's medical professionals, in and out of the IDF, have logged a lot of hours on sudden disasters. Moreover, on a daily basis, Israeli doctors, nurses and medical technicians work at a very high, "Western" standard.


But what Israelis are doing in Haiti, like what they did in Rwanda and other catastrophe zones, has to do with more than just experience and knowledge. I have known for a very long time that if I were in really bad trouble and could choose a person of any nationality to be passing by, I'd choose an Israeli.

When it's a matter of life or death, they have the biggest hearts.

So the IDF field hospital in Haiti is a reflection of something very deep in the national character.

But so is everything that's summed up in the name "Gaza." It's the Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressibly tragic. And more and more, the Haiti part of the national character has been dwarfed by the Gaza part.

Gaza, too, is a matter of life and death - not just for the people who were trapped in the rubble there not long ago, but for Israel. When will this big-hearted nation stop being heartless to the people in Gaza?

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