Think Again: Everyone’s favorite scapegoat

Anti-haredi bias explains much of the venom directed at Eli Yishai, but there was something else pushing media agenda as well: the desire to avoid thinking about a truly scary subject.

December 17, 2010 15:25
Yishai reacts to the state comptroller's report.

yishai press conference_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

After a tragedy like the huge fire that claimed 43 lives and destroyed much of the beautiful Carmel Forest, the country resembles a shiva house. At the latter, there are always those who insist on knowing every detail of the deceased’s final days.

It doesn’t matter that the deceased was 100 years old, or that, in most cases, the mourners find more comfort in discussing his or her life than the circumstances of death. One senses in their questions a certain desperation, as if by identifying some crucial distinguishing point between themselves and the deceased they can preserve the hope that they will not die.

And so after every national tragedy, we cast about for a scapegoat, as if removing the guilty party will somehow prevent all future tragedies.

Much can and should be learned from disasters, and the government is quite right to reassess our preparedness for a major fire.

I have written in the past about the country’s chronic inability to plan for the future and thereby avert looming disasters, whether it be the water shortage or the almost certain earthquake in an area that lies on a fault line. Too much public attention is absorbed by the security situation and the illusory peace process, not to mention the perpetual coalition jockeying.

Our self-absorbed ministers spend too much time protecting their backs or plotting their advancement to concentrate on the tasks at hand. (At least Interior Minister Eli Yishai cannot be accused on that last count; he seeks no higher ministry.) That said, natural disasters, like death, are inevitable. Yes, if we had possessed more fire trucks, a few super-tanker aircraft designed for fighting major blazes and better organized fire services, the damage from the Carmel blaze would have been substantially less. (Though nothing would likely have saved the vast majority of those who perished, once the foolhardy decision was made to send a bus of Prisons Service officer training cadets in a bus to evacuate a prison in the path of the blaze.) But the money to bring the fire services up to snuff would have had to come from somewhere, just like the money needed to protect many substandard buildings against earthquakes, or the money needed to build more desalinization plants as a hedge against years of drought.

If we spend the money to protect against every possible, or even every probable natural disaster, that money will have to come from our most basic ongoing needs – from new equipment for the IDF, from supplemental school hours to balance the educational inequities between different population groups. And even if the money were printed to both prepare for every predicted disaster and address all our ongoing needs, there would still be a price to pay in terms of our long-range economic viability, as Western Europe is presently discovering.

So yes, the fire-fighting services were poorly organized and woefully underfunded, certainly in hindsight, but at the end of the day choices have to be made and life cannot be made risk free.

NO CHOICE of scapegoat for the Carmel blaze could please everyone. But Yishai, whom the state comptroller determined bore primary ministerial responsibility, probably came as close as possible. Those cabinet members for whom Shas’s leading role in the government is a bitter pill that must be swallowed were delighted. Even more pleased was the mainstream media, which had been provided with another club with which to beat the haredi public.

The media did not even attempt to conceal their anti-haredi agenda. One editorial writer after another wondered if Yishai might not have had more time for attending to the parlous state of the fire services if he had not been devoting himself to guaranteeing the income subsidies of kollel students and ridding the country of foreign workers.

Interestingly, none of those same editorialists wondered what distracted Shinui’s Avraham Poraz or any of the other recent interior ministers from attending to the problem during their stints in office. Clearly it was not protecting yeshiva stipends.

And if the disaster was truly one everyone with eyes in his head saw coming, why hasn’t the press been filled with demands for updating the fire services or editorials questioning why we have one firefighter per 7,000 residents versus the average of one to 1,200 for OCED nations.

I don’t doubt that there are many things Yishai wishes he had done differently, even within the budgetary constraints he faced. But the charge that he did nothing because all his attention was directed elsewhere will not wash.

He succeeded in wresting NIS 100 million more from the budget for the fire-fighting services than any previous interior minister, and had sought nearly seven times that amount.

At a press conference after the release of the state comptroller’s report, Fire and Rescue Service Commissioner Shimon Romach defended Yishai. He insisted that during his tenure in office “never has there been such intensive involvement of the interior minister in the services,” and he pointed out that Yishai had “managed to obtain a budget 10 times any other annual budget for new equipment.”

As far back as 2002, only Shas had opposed a cabinet decision to remove IDF helicopters from fire-fighting duty.

ANTI-HAREDI BIAS explains much of the venom directed at Yishai, but there was something else pushing the media agenda as well: the desire to avoid thinking about a truly scary subject. For the first few days of the fire, the media consistently downplayed the possible involvement of Israeli Arabs in a string of arson attacks that worsened the crisis. Though the original blaze was not an act of arson, many other subsequent fires, which removed needed fire-fighting manpower and equipment from combating the main blaze, were allegedly deliberately set. Such acts of ecological terrorism have, unfortunately, become regular occurrences.

Beating up on the haredim proved more attractive for much of the media than contemplating the fact that among the Arab population – nearly a fifth of the country – there are many who do not wish Israel well, and not a few prepared to act upon those ill wishes.

Better to confront the haredi bogeyman than to think about a frightening reality.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.

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