When a devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, the Israel Defense Forces quickly assembled and sent one of the largest aid teams of any country. Its field hospital included 60 beds and an obstetrics department. A recent count noted that the Israeli physicians had conducted 33 surgeries, delivered five babies and were assisting in Nepalese hospitals, as well.
Reaching out to countries in need is a long-standing Israeli tradition. Emergency teams went to Turkey after an earthquake in 1999, and again in 2011, even though Turkey initially declined twice because of eroding relations between the two countries. Israel sent a large team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and in March 2011, it was the first country to set up a field hospital in Japan after the tsunami. Similar relief efforts were conducted in Mexico (1985), Armenia (1988), Greece (1999), Egypt (2004) and Kenya (2006).
And though Syria has been at war with Israel since the Jewish state declared independence in 1948, Israeli physicians have been treating victims of the Syrian civil war for years, sometimes in field hospitals and at times in Israel’s major hospitals. Israel has even been sending aid into Syria proper.
Israeli humanitarian aid, however, is unique in that it invariably evokes cynicism. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch (an organization so hostile to Israel that even its founder rebuked it in disgust and later left the organization), tweeted “Easier to address a far-away humanitarian disaster than the nearby one of Israel’s making in Gaza. End the blockade!”
Israelis, too, have joined the pile-on. Haaretz, Israel’s hard-left-leaning paper of record, couldn’t help but point out that, “Once again, Israel is shining during a disaster thousands of miles away. But the people down the coast are another thing.” (Haaretz didn’t mention that Gaza’s Hamas government is sworn on destroying Israel, and unleashed a war against Israel’s citizens this past summer.) Another Haaretz column insisted that “Disaster relief feeds the illusion that we can somehow be clever, creative and cooperative enough to make the world absolve us of everything else that is wrong with what we do.”
Some Israelis, though, have had enough. In what started out as a Facebook post that eventually went viral and become a blog entry on the Times of Israel website, Haviv Rettig Gur wrote: “If I hear one more time that Israel’s field hospital in Nepal is somehow connected to the conflict with the Palestinians, I’m going to permanently block the person saying so on the grounds that they’re stupid. Here’s the thing: Israel is an entire … country, with all the complicated impulses and competing agendas of any human society. … The IDF doesn’t go to Nepal to avoid the Palestinian issue. It goes because Israelis have honed emergency medicine into an art form, and because the IDF has never quite shed its founding culture of adventurousness, and, above all, because there are people out there who desperately need help.”
He’s right. When Golda Meir (who would have turned 117 this week) was foreign minister, she assembled her staff in 1959 to state unequivocally that aiding others is part of the very essence of Zionism. She said:
“It has fallen to me to carry out Dr. Theodor Herzl’s vision. Each year, more and more African states are gaining national independence. Like us, their freedom was won only after years of struggle. … And like us, nobody handed them their sovereignty on a silver platter. … Israel’s nation-building experience is uniquely placed to lend a helping hand to the new African states. … We are going to send out to the new African states scores, even hundreds, thousands of Israeli experts of every sort — technologists, scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers, agronomists, irrigation experts. They will all have but one task — to unselfishly share their know-how with the African people.”
She said that long before the Palestinian issue had arisen, long before Israel had an international reputation about which to worry. She said it because it was true. Whatever else one may think of Israel’s foreign policy, Haviv Rettig Gur is right: There are times that Israel does things — like sending aid abroad — simply because it is the right thing to do.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem.
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