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.

larry derfner 58 (photo credit: d)
larry derfner 58
(photo credit: d)
The proudest moment I've experienced as an Israelicame in 1994 after the genocide in Rwanda. The news over here was fullof stories about the IDF field hospital that was taking care ofrefugees, and I automatically assumed this was just more nationalself-promotion, something all countries do during a humanitariandisaster, the most vivid example being the giant-size, made-for-TVletters they print on the boxes of supplies they donate.

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

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

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

Yeah, I was proud.

AND NOW, 15 years later, it's happening again in Haiti. "I'vebeen here since Thursday [and] no one except the Israeli hospital hastaken any of our patients," Dr. Jennifer Furin of Harvard MedicalSchool told CNN. Walking past the IDF's medical tents, CNN reporterElizabeth Cohen said: "I'm just amazed at what's here. This is likeanother world compared to the other hospital." Other leading US andBritish news media reported the same thing.

This time around, though, I'm not surprised. Overthe years, Israel has become a bona fide world leader in disasterrelief, best known for pulling survivors out of rubble and for healingvictims under olive-green tents.

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

But what Israelis are doing in Haiti, like what they did inRwanda and other catastrophe zones, has to do with more than justexperience and knowledge. I have known for a very long time that if Iwere in really bad trouble and could choose a person of any nationalityto 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'sthe Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressiblytragic. And more and more, the Haiti part of the national character hasbeen dwarfed by the Gaza part.

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