As the State of Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, it will also celebrate a lesser-known, but perhaps equally important milestone: 70 years since its first humanitarian mission.
On August 12, 1953, the fledgling Israeli Navy was conducting a routine training exercise off the coast of Crete when it intercepted a distress call from the Greek island of Kefalonia (or Cephalonia), which had been struck by a massive earthquake. A mere 12 hours away, a fleet of four Israeli ships was among the first responders to arrive.
The Israelis did not have prior experience in humanitarian aid. But what they lacked in training and supplies they made up for in resourcefulness and compassion. Although they were eventually joined by American, British, and Greek naval units, the Israelis were the primary responders in charge of evacuating survivors and providing medical treatment, as contemporary maritime law dictated that the first fleet to arrive at a crisis was deemed responsible.
Although Greek public opinion was largely pro-Arab at the time, the Israeli response earned high praise. King Paul and Queen Frederica of Greece expressed their heartfelt gratitude and bestowed an award upon the fleet. Local papers featured headlines celebrating the “sailors of salvation” and a “fleet of love and hope.” Kefalonia named a street “Israil.”
Upon their return home, the sailors were warmly greeted by Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who equated their actions with national security: “I do not know what is more important – the wartime operations of our fleet in the War of Independence or the current rescue operation in Greece.”
“I do not know what is more important – the wartime operations of our fleet in the War of Independence or the current rescue operation in Greece.”David Ben-Gurion
Cementing the place of humanitarian action in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Ben-Gurion continued: “These two missions should stand before you like a candle to show the way: To be a capable and prepared force to come to the aid of those in need at any time and hour. And, if imposed upon us, to renew the bravery of the young fleet at a time of war.”
What started as an accidental mission paved the way for over 30 IDF humanitarian missions. It also laid the foundation for the establishment of numerous Israeli humanitarian aid NGOs, which function independently, receiving little to no funding from the government.
Israel's 70-year history of humanitarian aid abroad
As CEO of OLAM – a network of 70 Jewish and Israeli organizations working in humanitarian aid, international development, and global volunteering – I recently gave a talk on the history of Israel’s contributions to global disaster relief and international development. Among several Israelis working in humanitarian aid who were present, none knew the story of Kefalonia.
Yet, despite its relative obscurity, this mission set an important precedent of rapid mobilization and resourcefulness that continues to characterize Israeli disaster relief efforts. As David Gidron, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in the Home Front Command, notes, “The IDF sees humanitarian assistance as part of its identity.”
I spoke to some of OLAM’s Israeli partners to better understand the motivations and inner workings of Israel’s humanitarian response to crises abroad. For the Israeli government, this response is both instrumental and ideological, simultaneously fulfilling a desire to do good while also serving as an opportunity for what is known by natives as hasbara (Israel’s public diplomacy efforts) – a chance to positively highlight Israel and the IDF.
These efforts also have the practical advantage of bolstering Israel’s own emergency preparedness, explains Gidron, an organizational psychologist who joined the IDF in 1989 as an expert in emergency population behavior and head of the Civil Emergency Behavior Branch. Gidron was part of IDF rescue teams responding to earthquakes in Turkey and Greece. “We learn a lot from those events and become better prepared to deal with crises, at home and abroad,” he says.
One of the main lessons is that time is of the essence for this search and rescue work. “There isn’t necessarily a value in being first. But there’s a value in arriving quickly,” says Gidron. When people are trapped under rubble or fleeing a war zone, the clock is ticking to save lives and get people the food, water, and medical attention they need.
Getting to a disaster quickly, however, is complicated. For the IDF, it requires sophisticated coordination among Home Front Command, General Headquarters, and often other governmental ministries. Given the complexities, the IDF regularly trains and practices how to deploy humanitarian delegations rapidly.
Its training has paid off. In Haiti, the IDF’s field hospital was fully operational just 89 hours after the 2010 earthquake struck. This was in stark contrast to the USNS Comfort, an American naval hospital that took seven days to start receiving patients, though it traveled far less distance. In Nepal, the IDF arrived two days after the 2015 earthquake, bringing with it a larger delegation of medical personnel than any other country, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). In recognition of these and other achievements, in 2016 Israel became the first country to receive the World Health Organization’s highest ranking for emergency medical teams.
Beyond the obvious life-saving benefits, rapid deployment also has a psychological dimension. “It sends a strong message that they are not alone.” Gidron says. Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAID, Israel’s largest non-governmental humanitarian aid organization, takes this sentiment one step further. “Psychological first aid is as crucial as food and water. It prevents future post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Arriving at the early stages of a crisis also allows humanitarian entities to establish relationships with local partners. “The sooner you are there, the sooner you can identify needs that are not getting attention in the news. When you’re on the ground, you can discover that two miles down the road, there are people who are not being served,” says Polizer.
“But even more important than arriving early is staying for the long term. That’s what builds trust. The needs are long term. There’s no magic solution for mental health and resilience, for water infrastructure. These things take time,” he elaborates.
IsraAID is able to respond to crises quickly because its in-house, full-time emergency response team is always ready to be deployed; and it maintains a large roster of trained professionals who can be called upon to supplement this staff. The “Israeli” character of the organization also helps. Israelis, who do mandatory military service, are used to dropping everything at a moment’s notice. “People go to reserves and fight in wars. It’s the Israeli mentality, history, and the political situation. We thrive in chaos,” says Polizer.
Dr. Einav Levy, founding director of The Israeli School of Humanitarian Action and Lucien Research Center for Humanitarian Action, recognizes that rapid deployment sometimes has downsides. In the early stages when chaos abounds, it’s hard to get a full picture of the needs on the ground. “It’s not that quick is good and depth is bad. You need both. You just need to know your added value,” Levy says.
Israel’s spirit of resourcefulness is one of those values. “Israelis don’t exactly glorify procedures. Protocols are a tool but are not sacred,” says Levy. “Israelis are able to look not only at what is written on paper but also at what’s not written.” Polizer confirms this from his own experience. “We’ve seen big [non-Israeli humanitarian] organizations stuck in customs. The Israelis come with a small team and pass from behind.”
“Every humanitarian aid worker needs to possess a certain degree of ingenuity. Every emergency situation is different. You can’t simply copy and paste from one crisis to the next,” says Dana Manor, deputy director of the Society for International Development (SID)-Israel, an umbrella organization of over 170 Israeli entities that work in international development and humanitarian aid. “This is part of the Israeli ethos.”
While ingenuity is invaluable, some responders acknowledge that the ecosystem of Israeli humanitarian aid could benefit from increased professionalization. An adherence to more robust standards, for example, could ensure that all organizations entering a crisis zone meet specific criteria or only accept volunteers with specific skill sets needed in each situation.
Levy would like to see Israelis adopting a humbler posture. “We should rely much more heavily on local knowledge and local communities in times of crisis. Our role, as outsiders, is to support them.”
Gidron also admits that the field can do better when it comes to cross-sector collaboration. “We can be even more integrated in our response, with different government offices and NGOs being clearer to each other about their added value and supporting each other.”
That said, Israel’s humanitarian sector is progressing. We’ve seen this clearly with the increase of Israeli academic programs focusing on humanitarian aid over the last decade.
“Not only are there more academic programs,” says Manor, “but for the first time, there is research available, in Hebrew, on humanitarian responses to global disasters. This will ultimately make the way we deliver aid more effective and impactful.”
Even as we celebrate these developments and call for further progress, I am grateful for the initiative demonstrated by Israel’s Navy in the wake of the 1953 Kefalonia earthquake – a moment that set the tone for a young country that would go on to respond to global crises for the next 70 years and will undoubtedly continue to drive humanitarian efforts for decades to come. ■
Dyonna Ginsburg is the CEO of OLAM, a network of 70 Jewish and Israeli organizations working in humanitarian aid, international development, and global volunteering.