The Israeli response to the Nepal earthquake disaster couldn’t have been more, well, Israeli. From the minute I heard of the devastating quake, when I turned on the news after Shabbat on April 25, it was easy to predict how events would unfold. It was obvious that Israel would send a top-notch search-and-rescue mission to the scene as soon as possible and a fully equipped field hospital admired by medical teams wherever it is established: I remember hearing an American doctor in a television interview during the Haiti rescue mission being impressed by the X-ray facilities and neo-natal unit treating preemie babies born into the harshest of conditions.
It was clear that some talkbacks would accuse Israel of going to Nepal to harvest organs or other nefarious deeds. In 2009, Baroness Jenny Tonge made a similar vile accusation in the British House of Lords, demanding an investigation into what the IDF team was doing in Haiti.
National pride, however, was running high: It’s hard to write a piece on such a mission without mentioning the well-known Talmudic precept: Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. It’s right up there with the idea of tikkun olam, mending the world – something that brings the country together, religious and secular, Left and Right, regardless of ethnic origin (and incidentally, the head of the IDF field hospital is a Druse doctor, Col. Tarif Bader, the army’s deputy chief medical officer).
The response of the 650 or so Israelis caught up in the disaster was also predictable.
Those in Kathmandu instinctively made their way to the embassy or to the Chabad House. Time for another deeply entrenched precept: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lezeh,” “All Jews are responsible for each other.” It’s more than a saying. It’s part of what keeps us going, especially in difficult times.
Soon there were scenes of parents, understandably anguished, meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to hear what was being done to locate and rescue their children caught in the quake. It doesn’t matter how old they are; they’re always “children” when they’re missing or in distress. And there were demands that more be done.
The weather conditions and collapsed infrastructure which made the rescue in Nepal so much harder also made it that much more urgent.
I’m not sure what the citizens of other countries do under such circumstances (although some ended up at the Chabad House as word got out); I doubt many have the same positive expectation of help. I call it the Entebbe Mentality.
This is sometimes combined with Israeli chutzpah: During the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, I heard a caller on a morning radio show complaining that the Israeli Embassy was not doing enough to help him. As the conversation went on, it became apparent that the man had lived in Japan for at least 10 years and had no plans to return to Israel any time soon. But when it came to being “rescued,” he naturally looked to Jerusalem.
Later, I contacted what I nicknamed the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Accidental Tourists, where Ilana Ravid, whose official title is Director for Israelis Abroad, the Consular Affairs Bureau, was diplomatic but not shocked. Both Ravid and Orit Shani, then-head of the Crisis Management Center and Situation Room which receive most of the initial emergency calls, pointed out that the ministry was studying how other countries operate to draw up limits and boundaries.
But Ravid admitted it would be hard to implement them when it came to Israelis.
“The children” are “our children” and you have to use your head and heart, not just rules and regulations.
One element to the Nepal story did take me by surprise, however: the number of babies born to surrogate mothers there for Israelis, most of them gay male couples.
When the earthquake shook Nepal’s capital, 26 such infants were instantly at risk and it was heartbreaking to hear the fears of new fathers as food, water and diapers ran out and conditions deteriorated. Israel made an effort to airlift the babies first.
The incident raised much public discussion about the ethics of surrogacy, particularly when it involves poor and ill-educated women who desperately need the money and are willing to suffer the health risks and emotional costs. It’s a subject that pitted women’s rights activists against LGBT activists.
Many pinned their hopes on a possible change in the surrogacy law in Israel which would allow singles and gay couples to use a local Israeli surrogate under better conditions and greater supervision.
Typically, in a country crazy about kids and tremendously family focused, few questioned the desire for parenthood or the lengths people would go to realize that dream. Among the Israelis stranded in Nepal were grandmothers who had accompanied their sons to help take care of the newborn member of the family. At Ben-Gurion Airport as the rescue planes landed, plenty of thrilled and relieved grandparents were evident.
No wonder world media briefly picked up on the story: Of all the images of Israel generally broadcast around the globe, the one of gay guys protecting their young is not the most common. Although as fellow journalist Haviv Rettig Gur put it in a Facebook post: “Those who see in every good news from Israel hasbara are missing the single most important fact you can know about Israel – that it isn’t a political campaign begging for your vote. It is a nation. With two million schoolchildren, dozens of cities, its own cinema scene and a language spoken nowhere else in the world. It doesn’t go away if it loses some imaginary popularity contest. And as with any human society, it offers an endless stream of failures and successes that will let you ‘prove’ any narrative you want....”
“Israel at 67 remains a country of continual self-examination, no doubt an important reason for its success,” wrote attorney Jeff Robbins, a former US delegate to the UN Human Rights Council, in the Boston Herald this week. “Its electoral and parliamentary systems resemble bumper cars, and its media is so raucously free as to be a virtual free-forall.
Its democracy is extraordinarily robust, and also maddening....
“But there are economic inequalities in Israel, its critics say. Of course there are, and significant ones, as there are in the United States and in the European democracies, which are not obliged to spend comparable percentages of their gross national product defending themselves from neighbors pledged to their elimination....”
Caught up in the drama of the Nepal rescue, the post-election politicking was almost pushed aside.
Israeli media, however, couldn’t completely forget the Independence Day and Election Day soul-searching. The result was another very Israeli phenomenon, one I call Split- Screen Syndrome, in which what we’re seeing is out of synch with what we’re hearing.
We’re not that bad; but there’s room for improvement.
We’re better than many, worse than some.
According to the World Happiness Report 2015, released this week, the 10 happiest countries are Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia.
Guess who was in the 11th spot? Little Israel, comfortably ahead of the US (15), Britain (21) and Japan (46).
I wasn’t surprised: Israel has consistently come high in the happiness index which is based on factors like GDP per capita, social support, health and life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perception of corruption (our weak spot), and “everything else” (which, former Brit that I am, I take to include the weather).
We might not be rich, but undeniably Israelis know how to rally round and offer support, strengthened by close family ties and a natural generosity.
We didn’t need to respond to a disaster in Nepal to discover that. Happiness is close to home, if you know what you’re looking firstname.lastname@example.org
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