Rabbi says couples whose marriage licenses burned in wildfires cannot live together

The chief rabbi of an area affected by the wildfires that cut across Israel said couples whose marriage licenses were destroyed in the blazes cannot live together until they draw up a new one.

Rabbi Mordechai Abramovski of Zichron Yaakov said in an interview with the haredi Orthodox news website Kikar HaShabbat that the prohibition against living together without a ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, applies in the case of a fire. His statements were first reported in English in The Jerusalem Post.

His ruling was at odds with Israel’s chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, who said Monday that couples could continue to live together without a ketubah burned in a fire but that a replacement ketubah should be procured as soon as possible. They said it is permissible since the rabbinates in which they registered their marriage maintain a copy of the ketubah.

Under Jewish law, couples cannot live together without a ketubah, a document established during the Talmudic era to protect women’s rights in a marriage.

Abramovski is also the rabbi in charge of issuing marriage licenses in Haifa.

Israelis displaced by fires to receive assistance from Jewish Agency, government

The Jewish Agency for Israel will provide immediate financial assistance to hundreds of families throughout Israel whose homes were damaged by fires that swept the country.

The announcement came hours after Israel’s finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, approved an allocation of about $650 per person for those who were forced to leave their homes and are unable to return. Over 1,000 homes reportedly were damaged or destroyed in the fires.

A grant of $1,000 from the Jewish Agency will be provided to each family “to help them address urgent needs presented by the loss of their place of residence,” the Jewish Agency said Sunday in a statement.

Funding for the grants will be provided by special contributions from the Jewish Federations of North America led by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, Keren Hayesod-UIA and additional donors, the agency said.

“At trying times like these, world Jewry feels closely connected to what is taking place in Israel and comes to our help without hesitation,” Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in the statement. “We are proud of our partners in Jewish communities around the world, and particularly in North America, and appreciate their solidarity when it matters the most.”

Local authorities, in coordination with Israel’s National Emergency Authority, will determine eligibility for the funds.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews provided vouchers for food and clothing to the elderly and new immigrants displaced by the fire. On Friday, it launched an emergency telephone hotline operating in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian, providing the elderly and new immigrants with details about seeking help and giving volunteers a way to offer their help.

The Jewish Federations of North America opened an Israel Fire Emergency Fund over the weekend, with the funds designated to help Israelis displaced by the some 200 fires that have burned throughout the country.

The Jewish National Fund also opened an emergency fund, with donations earmarked for new firefighting equipment and reforestation.

The Israeli-American Council on Friday opened a fund “to support the firefighters working around the clock to save lives and property.”

Top US firefighters ‘dropped everything’ to help Israel battle the blazes

Call them Israel’s American volunteer fire brigade.

Dozens of firefighters from across the United States put their lives on hold – leaving behind jobs and families – to help subdue the wildfires that swept Israel over the past week. While they all share a love of Israel, only a handful of them are Jewish.

“We’re just firefighters. When guys hear about a situation like this one, where the Israelis are working as hard as they can, they want to come help,” said Billy Hirth, a Protestant who retired last year after a 24-year career as a firefighter in Arlington, Texas, and has been coordinating the American effort from Jerusalem.

“It’s a brotherhood. Firemen are firemen,” he said.

Hundreds of fires flared up in Israel starting Tuesday, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. Some 32,000 acres of forest and brush burned along with hundreds of homes and businesses.

Israeli authorities said the fires started because of an unseasonably long dry spell and high winds, and then were exacerbated by Palestinian and Arab-Israeli arsonists with nationalist motives.

On Friday, Israel’s Public Security Ministry formally requested firefighting help from the Emergency Volunteers Project, a network of over 950 American volunteers and professional first responders. By Saturday evening, with the fires coming under control, the firefighters started arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, from where they were schlepped to overstretched fire departments across the country.

Some went to work battling the remaining wildfires and those that flared up Sunday, while others chipped in with routine firefighting. The Israeli stations remain on high alert, with firefighters having worked grueling shifts over the past week.

“Many of the firefighters here, including myself, had been working for over 90 hours straight,” said Oren Shishitzky, a spokesman for Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority. “Because most of the Americans were trained in Israel, they are familiar with how we operate, and they were able to easily relieve some of the burden on the crews, whether with regular fire response in local districts or in extinguishing the remaining wildfires.

“I cannot emphasize enough our appreciation that these guys dropped everything around the Thanksgiving holiday to come here.”

Adi Zahavi, 39, founded the Emergency Volunteers Project in 2009 after serving as an overwhelmed first responder during the second intifada and the Second Lebanon War. He set out to prepare willing Americans to help in future crises, from wars to terrorist attacks to natural disasters. Training sessions are held in the United States and Israel. The deployment of the volunteers is coordinated with Israeli authorities.

Of the 39 firefighters now in Israel, 33 are full-timers, including the first female firefighter the group has brought to Israel, and six are part-time volunteers. Several, including Hirth, also came to Israel during the 2014 Gaza war, when the south and center of the country were bombarded with rockets. Many are now working alongside firefighters with whom they have built friendships during training.

“The quality of the American firefighters that have arrived is excellent,” Shishitzky said. “They are elite firefighters, with years and years of experience. Many are veterans who serve in some of the best departments in America.

“Where there are distinctions in training and practice, those were overcome long ago with the training we have conducted.”

Elan Raber, 42, is one of seven Jews among the firefighters. He flew in Sunday morning from Los Angeles, where he works for the city fire department. Raber is familiar with the station he is serving at in Petach Tivkah because he trained there with the Emergency Volunteers Program.

He said he has been responding to routine calls, like traffic accidents, elevator accidents and reports of smoke.

“I was here last year and really bonded with the guys, so I wanted to come back. They do have pretty steady action and a lot of equipment to get familiar with,” Raber said. “We’re coming in here while these guys have already been up for three, four days. We can basically help them out and be on standby if the wildfires come back.”

Having been born in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Force, Raber views being here as a part of his “calling.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad press for Israel, so I hope to show that people are willing to drop everything to show solidarity with the people of Israel. I think people see that, and it’s a good thing. Firefighting was my calling, so I’m happy to help out,” he said.

A fellow Jew on the other side of the country helped bring Raber to Israel on short notice. Eli Row — the Orthodox Jewish owner of Jet911, an air ambulance company based in the Queens borough of New York City — scrambled to arrange flights for the firefighters over Shabbat, something that Jewish law requires if it could mean saving lives. Row landed in Israel on Monday afternoon to thank the American firefighters for their service.

Back in the U.S., 25 firefighters are standing by in case the wildfires again begin to spread. If not, and the weather conditions improve as hoped, the firefighters in Israel are to return home at the end of the week.

Palestinian police: No evidence Jewish settlers set blaze in Palestinian home

There is no evidence that a fire in a home in the West Bank Palestinian village of Duma was set by Jewish settlers, Palestinian security officials said.

The fire early Monday morning sent three Palestinian residents to the hospital suffering smoke inhalation and damaged the home, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported. The security officials said that they would not rule out any possibilities, however.

A home in Duma was firebombed last month in what was believed to be a nationalist attack by Jewish extremists. Saad Dawabsha and his 18-month-old son, Ali, were killed.

Members of the extended Dawabshe family own the house that suffered the fire on Monday.

Palestinian Authority police said the fire could have been the result of an electrical problem, though Maan reported that unidentified assailants threw flammable material on the house. Israel Fire Services reportedly believe an electrical problem was at fault.

Massive Jerusalem fire deliberately set

A fire that caused the evacuation of hundreds of residents of a Jerusalem neighborhood and nearby Moshav and burned more than 70 acres was found to be deliberately set.

The remains of two firebombs were found near where Sunday’s fire was believed to have started, the Times of Israel reported, citing Israeli radio reports.

The fire burned homes and warehouses in Moshav Even Sapir and caused the temporary closing of Route 1, the main highway into Jerusalem, which was reopened by evening. It also moved near Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, but the hospital was never threatened, according to reports.

Some 30 firefighting teams and at least four airplanes battled the blaze for about eight hours.

The country has been hit by a days-long heatwave, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees in the Jerusalem area on Sunday.

Other fires that have burned in recent weeks near Jerusalem are believed to have been started by arsonists. Nearly 400 acres of forest in the Jerusalem area have been burned.

Firefighters’ families share the language of loss

Bat-Sheva and Hofit Hayat, mother and wife of deceased Israeli firefighter Danny Hayat, shared their story and grief with the families of the 19 Hotshot firefighters who died on June 30 in the Yarnell, Ariz., wildfire. The two women relayed their experience in Arizona when visiting Los Angeles as a last stop before returning to Israel. As native Hebrew speakers, Hofit and Bat-Sheva struggled to express themselves in English as tears streamed down their faces and sorrow filled their voices when talking about Danny in Los Angeles. They said a similar scene took place in Arizona, however, the Hayats were speaking a universal language families in Arizona understood: the language of loss.

The Hayats lost Danny to the Mount Carmel forest fire in Israel in December 2010, as the 44th and final victim. He died rescuing Israeli Prison Service and police officers from a bus near the fire. Bat-Sheva initially reached out in writing to the 19 families of the firefighters in Arizona to send her condolences and share her personal and very similar tragedy.

After the letter, Keren Hayesod, an Israeli nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the priorities of the State of Israel, paid for the Hayats to travel to Arizona. According to Bat-Sheva, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also blessed the trip.

The Hayats said they felt they had to support the families of the fallen firefighters in Arizona. In sharing their pain and suffering, they hoped to bring power and solidarity to the community.

“I came here to strengthen the families and the American people, but they strengthened me,” Bat-Sheva said.

With this newfound strength came uncommon emotion. In Israel, Bat-Sheva said, she tried not to cry to avoid looking weak. In Arizona however, it was a different story. 

“I look at the families and I see myself. I cry for them and I cry for myself,” Bat-Sheva said with tears in her eyes.

Bat-Sheva mourned with the community in Prescott, Ariz., at the memorial service for the firefighters and was joined by Hofit at a commemoration organized by the Jewish Community Association on July 9. 

Hofit, Danny’s wife of nine years and significant other for 13, said she uses Judaism to deal with her loss. She tells her three children that “everything happens for a reason.” 

“I think this is the destiny of Danny. I think God brought him to that road because that was his mission in life,” Hofit said. 

Bat-Sheva remembers her son as a dedicated, loving and selfless individual. She and her daughter-in-law still marvel at his constant choice, in his career and in life, to serve others before himself. 

“Danny was the hero of the fire, a firefighter hero. But for us, Danny was a hero every day, every hour,” Bat-Sheva said. “He was our hero.”

Major fire under control in Jerusalem area

A major fire in the Jerusalem area believed to be arson is under control.

More than 40 firefighting squads and two firefighting planes came together to put out the fire on Wednesday near the Hadassah Ein-Kerem Medical Center. Some hospital visitors were evacuated, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Four West Bank Palestinians found nearby were arrested in connection with the blaze, which started in several places. Police believe the fire was set intentionally but have not ruled out the possibility that hikers accidentally set the blaze.

A smaller fire, requiring 20 fire crews and two firefighting planes, was contained in the Carmel Mountains.

Arson suspected in fire at Eritreans’ Jerusalem apartment

Two African migrants were injured after a fire was allegedly set at the entrance to their Jerusalem apartment.

The fire broke out early Thursday morning; firefighters reportedly found rags soaked in an accelerant at the entrance to the apartment.

Its residents, a man and his pregnant wife, both from Eritrea, were taken to Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital suffering from moderate burns and smoke inhalation.

Four Eritrean migrants were injured a month ago when their Jerusalem apartment was set alight. There also have been several arson incidents against African migrants in Tel Aviv.

Palestinian teens arrested for Jerusalem arson, shots fired inside Gaza Strip restaurant

Two Palestinian teens were arrested for setting a fire near Jerusalem that destroyed 15 acres of forest.

The teens were arrested Monday and reportedly admitting to intentionally setting the June 26 fire, as well as to setting other fires and being involved in rock-throwing incidents, Ynet reported.

Some 35 firefighting teams from across the country and six firefighting planes battled the blaze, which was ignited near Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha, as well as another near the entrance to the city.

The Jerusalem area reportedly has suffered hundreds of fires in recent weeks, and many are believed to be the result of arson.

Meanwhile, shots fired from inside the Gaza Strip damaged a restaurant at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. The Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Monday evening, according to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces. A car also was hit by the machine-gun fire, Ynet reported.

The IDF and police patrolled the area before lowering the alert levels.

Massive Jerusalem fire under control

A fire near Jerusalem that threatened homes and closed the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway reportedly is under control.

It will still take time to extinguish all of the blazes near the city, according to fire officials.

Some 35 firefighting teams from across the country and six firefighting planes have battled the blaze, which reportedly erupted in two places.

Fire officials told Israeli media that the fire was either intentionally set or caused by negligence.

The Jerusalem area reportedly has suffered hundreds of fires in recent weeks, and many are believed to be the result of arson.

Fire at apartment of Eritrean migrants called arson

A Jerusalem apartment home to migrant workers from Eritrea was set on fire.

Ten Eritreans were rescued from the burning apartment early Monday morning; four were injured in the blaze.

An initial investigation by the Jerusalem Fire Department found that the fire was the result of arson.

Investigators found on one of the apartment walls spray-painted graffiti that read “Get out of the neighborhood.”

The fire reportedly was set near the door of the apartment, making it nearly impossible for the occupants to escape.

More than a month ago, firebombs were thrown at several apartments in Tel Aviv that are home to African migrants.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday condemned violence against African migrants, calling the Jerusalem attack a “heinous crime.”

“No person has the right to violate the law and resort to violence against others, certainly not to endanger lives, for any reason whatsoever. Law and ethics prohibit any injury to the other, the guest and the foreigner. Jewish history compels us to take exceptional caution on these matters,” the ministry said in a statement.

Kassams strike southern Israel

At least four Kassam rockets fired from Gaza struck southern Israel.

Three rockets hit Wednesday night, according to the Israel Defense Forces, though some Israeli news reports put the number at five. An additional rocket hit about three hours earlier. No damage or injuries were reported.

In the last month, 29 rockets fired from Gaza have struck Israel, according to the IDF.

State Department condemns vandalism of West Bank mosque

The United States condemned the vandalizing of a mosque in the northern West Bank.

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s most recent vandalizing of a mosque, as well as the burning of three cars, in the West Bank village of Dir Istiya. Hateful, dangerous, and provocative actions such as these are never justified,”  the State Department said in a statement released late Wednesday.

The words “price tag” and “Gal Arye Yosef” were spray-painted on the wall of the mosque in the village of Dir Istiya, near Ariel, in the early Wednesday morning attack. The graffiti refers to an illegal outpost that was razed the previous day.

The State Department statement noted that the Israeli government “pledged to capture those responsible for these reprehensible attacks and to bring the perpetrators to justice” and called on the local authorities to “work together with the community to reduce tension and to defend religious freedom.”

“We again call for calm on the part of all parties and urge them to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of violence. Violence only serves to impede the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on acceptance and respect,” the statement said.

An attempt to attack the mosque was carried out last September.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly condemned the attack and commanded the Israel Defense Forces and officials in the defense establishment to “act resolutely, purposefully and to use all the means at their disposal to capture the lawless rioters and bring them to justice,” according to a statement issued from the Ministry of Defense.

“Such acts prevent the IDF from carrying out its primary missions, including the basic protection of the region’s residents,” Barak said. “These activities are designed to damage the fragile relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in the Judea and Samaria region, as well as between Israel and its neighbors. The IDF, in cooperation with the police and security personnel, will act robustly against these criminal activities.”

Arab cars set alight in eastern Jerusalem

Two cars owned by Arabs were set on fire near the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

The words “price tag” and “revenge” were spray painted near the site of the suspected arson attack, which occurred early Wednesday morning.

No suspects have been identified, but the graffiti is typical of other attacks by extremist right-wing Jews.

At least three mosques in the West Bank and Jerusalem have been torched in recent weeks. Similar graffiti was left at the sites of those attacks. Jewish settlers were arrested in connection with at least one of the attacks.

West Bank mosque set alight following outpost razing

A mosque in the West Bank was set alight hours after Israeli soldiers demolished two structures in an illegal outpost.

The interior of a mosque in a village near Ramallah was torched after being soaked with gasoline on Thursday morning. The words “war” and “Mitzpe Yitzhar,” the outpost that was razed early Thursday morning, were painted on the mosque. The attack comes a day after an historic unused mosque in Jerusalem was set on fire, damaging its exterior, and Palestinian vehicles were torched in the West Bank. Right-wing extremists have been blamed for the attacks.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the mosque attack a declaration of war by the settlers against the Palestinian people. He placed responsibility for the attack on the Israeli government and called on the international community to get involved.

The attack came hours after hundreds of Israeli soldiers and police dismantled two buildings, one residential, in the illegal West Bank outpost of Mitzpe Yitzhar, in which five families live.

There was little resistance since the area around the outpost was declared a closed military zone, preventing dozens of right-wing activists from entering the site.

On Tuesday night, settlers and right-wing activists vandalized a West Bank Israel Defense Forces base, injuring an officer, and threw stones at Palestinian cars after IDF forces in the area mobilized in that settlers thought was an effort to raze a West Bank outpost.

Meanwhile, on Thursday five people arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in price tag attacks against Palestinian property were ordered held for another 24 hours by the Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court. Their arrest led to clashes between right-wing activists and police in Jerusalem.

Also on Thursday during a meeting with settlement leaders and rabbis, Israeli President Shimon Peres criticized the attacks against Palestinians and the IDF.

“There is no room for criminality, violation of the law and riotousness. It’s horrible to see our sons and daughters enter IDF bases and nearly kill an officer,” he reportedly said. He called the settlers actions “adding fuel to the fire” in the Middle East.

Dozens of fires break out in northern Israel

More than 40 fires broke out across northern Israel over the weekend, many of which are suspected arson attacks.

While some of the forest fires are being considered the result of negligence, many are being investigated as arson attacks due to their multiple sources of ignition, according to Haaretz.

Dozens of people in the western Galilee were evacuated from their homes and hundreds of acres of forests were destroyed, according to reports. Hot dry winds and warm temperatures caused the fires to spread quickly.

Fire trucks and firefighter aircrafts were called in to control the blazes.

An out-of-control fire in the Carmel Forest last December led to 44 deaths. In addition, 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, 17,000 people were forced to evacuate, more than 12,000 acres were burned and an estimated 5 million trees were lost.

Third suspect arrested in mosque arson

A third suspect has been arrested in the arson attack on a mosque in an Israeli-Arab town.

The suspect, reported to be a 17-year-old resident of Gush Etzion, was arrested Sunday in connection with the Oct. 2 attack on a mosque in the Upper Galilee Bedouin town of Tuba Zanghariya.

Two other suspects arrested shortly after the attack, both minors who studied at a West Bank yeshiva, were released a week ago due to lack of evidence directly linking them to the attack.

The third suspect allegedly also was involved in the arson of a West Bank mosque near Hebron in October 2010. He was ordered held until Thursday during a hearing Sunday in the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court.

A gag order on the case remains in place.

After the fire: A Torah’s trip to a secular kibbutz

We land at Ben Gurion Airport in the heat of winter, on the first day of Chanukah.  At 11 a.m. Dec. 2, already it is 82 degrees in Tel Aviv—unusual weather for the rainy season in Israel. And it will get hotter. Much hotter.

Moments before our wheels touch down, a brush fire breaks out in the Carmel Valley, near Haifa. By the time we make it to our taxi it is a news item on the radio. You don’t need to be a fluent Hebrew speaker to know that something is happening. The cab drivers are clustered, standing by their cars with the news blaring on the radio, smoking, not talking. They are listening intently.

The ride to meet our friends who had arrived on separate flights gives us the opportunity to catch up with our driver. A fire in the Carmel is burning out of control, he tells us. Local firefighters are overwhelmed. Rumors are flying as to the cause.

By the time we check into our hotel at 4 p.m., the fire has become a national disaster; by dinnertime it is a national tragedy:  Forty prison guards and their bus driver perish while being evacuated. And the fire is getting stronger, engulfing a larger area and completely overpowering the available resources. In the fire’s sights are a school for troubled youth in Yemin Orde, an artist’s colony in Ein Hod and Kibbutz Beit Oren. Everyone knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who is directly affected. All army reservists with any firefighting experience are called and told to get to Haifa immediately.

By the time the sun goes down on Shabbat, the fire is extinguished. A converted 747 from Arizona designed to fight wildfires in California drops a huge blanket of chemicals to put out the blaze, but the destruction it leaves is smoldering and raw.

On Monday morning we visit Kibbutz Beit Oren, a secular group of New Age kibbutzniks who have championed a model of the collective community concept that is controversial and sustaining. Their primary income is derived from a hotel-resort operation combined with eco-tourism for nature lovers in the Carmel Valley. Kibbutz members not involved in the daily hotel business are employed by outside businesses or run home-based independent businesses from inside the kibbutz. One business, a pottery studio, belongs to an artist name Imi. Imi is married to Ran, who serves as the kibbutz manager. Ran leads us on a tour of what is left of Beit Oren.

Amazingly, much is spared. The main guest house and outbuildings used for the hotel guest business appear untouched by the fire. But the homes of many kibbutz members, including Ran and Imi’s, are destroyed. Imi’s studio, which contained many unfinished pots awaiting glazing in a high temperature kiln, is reduced to clay ashes.

Inside Ran and Imi’s house, food on the table is blackened. They explain that they got the call to evacuate in the middle of dinner and literally grabbed their laptops and cell phones before leaving for the waiting shuttles. The images of pictures affixed to their refrigerator door with magnets have literally melted from the intensity of the heat. Nearly everything is black and burnt; the smell reminds us of a campfire. Strangely, the only thing we notice that is not burnt are the wooden logs in the fireplace, somehow protected by the stone masonry that surround it.

It is an emotional scene for Ran and Imi, returning to their home this way, and we get caught up in the intensity of their feelings. You can see their pain of loss surrounded by their thankfulness for survival. It is on their faces, in their bloodshot eyes and in their choked-up voices.

We are compelled to do something for these people, some act of service or kindness to show them we are moved and that we care. So I ask, “What can we do for you?” expecting to write a check.

Ran pauses, takes a deep breath and replies.

“We will be OK, eventually. The insurance should cover our losses,” he says. “But there is something we would like to have.”

Excited at the prospect of any request, and raising my voice above the ever increasing sound of workers beginning their demolition work, I shout back at him, “What? Anything you want. If we can do it, we will. What do you need?”

We can barely hear each other above the bulldozers.

“A Torah,” he screams. “We need a Torah.”

At that moment I knew why we had come to Beit Oren that morning.

Ran explains that although they are a secular kibbutz, the residents do perform rituals and observances. They occasionally hold Shabbat services, officiate b’nai mitzvah and organize High Holidays services.

In Israel, Torahs are distributed by the nearest local chief rabbi. In Haifa, the chief rabbi, as in all Israeli cities and towns, is Orthodox; very Orthodox. In the chief rabbi’s view, Ran says, Beit Oren is not Jewish enough to merit a Torah because men and women sit together when praying. For an American Reform Jew, this is outrageous, and everyone in our group is appalled. My wife, Trudi, and I now have a mission. And we have a plan.

Just weeks before we left for Israel, the rabbi at our synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., suggested that the congregation consider what to do with the additional Torah scrolls that we acquired as part of a merger with another Reform synagogue.

We leave Ran and Imi at Beit Oren. I call our rabbi, Steven Kushner, and tell him I have an idea for one of the scrolls. I can hear him smiling into his iPhone. We return to New Jersey a week later, arriving at the airport in Newark at 5 a.m., and go before the temple board that same evening. Jet lagged but no doubt energized by the opportunity for mitzvah, we tell our story with considerable emotion. We talk about the fire, Ran and Imi, and the need for a Torah. We ask if the board would consider donating one of the temple’s. There are a few questions and the president calls for a vote. Twenty-five hands rise—the consent is unanimous.

It is a hot Friday in July when we return to Israel with the Torah scroll. After Kabbalat Shabbat services in Haifa, we head to the kibbutz. Walking up the steps into Ran and Imi’s house has a surreal quality. While I have only been there once, it seems so familiar. Perhaps the memory is so strong because of its tragic nature? Ran is happy and proud of his newly renovated home and eager to point out both the replaced and upgraded amenities.

Before eating we welcome Shabbat. There are guitars, ukuleles and drums, niggunim to get in the mood, and Shabbat songs. We sing, make blessings, eat great food, drink wine and sing some more, all underneath the star-filled sky of the Carmel on a beautifully restored deck. There is much to be thankful for this night in their house—a house rebuilt after the fire.

Despite its secular bent, the kibbutz has a shul. Construction began a few years ago after the passing of a longtime kibbutz member who made the provision in her will. By the looks of the fresh paint, clean floors and newly refurbished ark, our impending arrival may have given added purpose and priority to its timely completion.

Walking us back to our hotel bungalow, Ran tells me to leave the Torah in my room when the community first gathers the next morning at the shul. He says the residents will march to my room to “receive” the Torah from us and parade it back to the shul.

The next morning Ohad, a Jewish Renewal rabbi with a new age focus, officiates at the ceremony. He lives on the kibbutz and conducts seminars, meditations and gatherings in his spirituality center. He also operates from an encampment deep in the kibbutz’s forest, where he conducted a Jewish Shaman ceremony the night before. He looks like he has been up all night. About half of the community’s 170 members are gathered just outside the little shul for some opening remarks.

I lead the assembled multitude back to my hotel room to receive the Torah. There is genuine excitement, not merely polite participation. Soon I’m inside my room, lifting the Torah from its resting place. I turn and walk out the door.

There is singing, crying, laughing, kissing, hugging—first the Torah, then me, then each other. It is Simchat Torah times a million. A tallit is stretched out and raised as a makeshift chuppah. It is placed over me and the Torah, and the kibbutzniks begin to lead me back to their shul. A man comes up next to me, motioning to cut in, like you would with a dance partner. I hand him the Torah and he dances with it, tears streaming down his cheeks. Imi tells me he is a cancer survivor who is missing his vocal chords.

He is also a Yemenite, which happens to be the nationality of the chief scribe for this 110-year-old scroll—a fact I had passed to the group during my earlier remarks. The man is dancing with the Torah as though it were a long-lost relative.

From person to person the scroll is passed and shared. There is rejoicing under the chuppah as the procession slowly makes its way back to where we began.

Then I hear the blasts—long and loud, then short, rapid staccato with piercing highs. It is the sound not of one but three shofars. The horns are several feet long and curled about three-quarters of the way out, held high and played like trumpets announcing royalty. The energy is as palpable as it is powerful.

We return to the shul for a Torah service, then more singing and dancing with the Torah, a few closing remarks by the rabbi and lots of hugging and kissing. I am a popular target for demonstrative affection; it’s like being attacked by a dozen grandmothers at once. My favorite is a woman with a heavy Polish accent to her English, her mascara now in small clumps on her face.

“When I saw you come out with the Torah, I pished from my eyes,” she cries at me.

That pretty much sums it up. Of course, she also wants to know if I am hungry, married and if I have a place to stay that night. So Jewish.

After the crowd disperses, I have some alone time with Ran. He is much quieter than he had been last night and earlier that morning. I can see he is reflecting.

I start the conversation with a question: “Why did you ask me for a Torah?”

“I don’t know,” he replies too quickly, suggesting his train of thought was right where I had jumped in. “That is not like me. I am a business guy. I would always ask for money. But that day, when you asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I opened my mouth and the word ‘Torah’ came out. They were not my words. They did not come from me but through my mouth.”

Ran pauses and turns directly to me.

I am not quite sure what to say, and think I shouldn’t interrupt. He continues, “Then today when I see the people hugging and kissing, people who have not spoken to each other in months, some for years, I knew why we needed this Torah. We had problems here before the fire. The fire just made those problems worse. But now we have a Torah and after seeing this today, I think we can really start to heal.”

We exchange a few more words and I smile at him. Then two men—both Jewish, about the same age, born, raised and living 6,000 miles apart—embrace warmly.

One of the Torah verses chanted that day translates to “you shall pass through the fire and will be purified” (Numbers 31:23).  I think at that moment, locked in each others arms, we both realize we have “passed through” something much bigger than either of us, now forever connected by this fiery Torah. Such a blessing.

Jerry Krivitzky is a businessman living in Montclair, N.J.

Suspect arrested in mosque arson

Police have arrested an 18-year-old Jewish male in connection with the arson of a mosque in a Bedouin Arab town in northern Israel.

Police confirmed that they made the arrest several hours after the attack and that the suspect since then has been held in prison, according to reports.

The mosque in Tuba-Zangariyye was set alight Oct. 2, destroying holy books and prayer rugs.

Graffiti, including the words “price tag” and “Palmer,” were spray-painted on the walls of the mosque.

Price tag refers to the strategy that extremist settlers have adopted to exact a price in attacks on Palestinians in retribution for settlement freezes and demolitions or for Palestinian attacks on Jews. Palmer likely refers to Israeli Asher Palmer, who was killed Sept. 23 along with his infant son after a rock thrown in an apparent terrorist attack crashed through the windshield of his car, causing him to lose control of the vehicle, which then flipped over.

Israeli and Jewish leaders around the world, as well as the governments of several countries, condemned the arson attack. 

A U.S. State Department statement Tuesday “strongly” condemning the arson noted “that the Israeli Government also strongly condemned the attacks, and we endorse stepped-up efforts by law enforcement authorities to act vigorously to bring to justice those responsible for this heinous act and similar attacks that have taken place in the West Bank.”

Major U.S. Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the foreign policy umbrella body, also have condemned the arson.

A New Israel Fund appeal to Jewish clergy to condemn the mosque’s burning and to thank Israel’s leadership for speaking out against it garnered nearly 400 signatures within three hours.

Israel allocates millions to repair Carmel

Israel has allocated millions of dollars to repair the damage caused by the Carmel wildfire.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz instructed the government to release the funds following a decision made by the Carmel Rehabilitation Steering Committee headed by Eyal Gabai, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The assistance will help in the construction of permanent homes, compensating residents, assisting in the rehabilitation of the communities, rehabilitating the Carmel forests, resuming cultural activities and repairing damages to agriculture and infrastructures, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Some $16 million will be allocated to rehabilitating the flora and fauna in the Carmel forests.  This is in accordance with the outline formulated by the Environmental Protection and Agriculture and Rural Development ministries. This is in addition to the $38 million allocated for the area’s restoration immediately following the four-day fire.

“Today, we are taking another significant step for the communities and the residents who were damaged and hurt in the Carmel wildfire.  These are not statements but steps that are being taken on the ground, quickly and tangibly.  I thank all those involved for acting professionally and for cooperating in order to meet this important goal,” Netanyahu said.

Some 42 people were killed, about 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, 17,000 people were forced to evacuate, more than 12,000 acres were burned and an estimated 5 million trees were lost in the early December blaze.

Tel Aviv-bound train catches fire, injures 121

Some 121 passengers were injured after a fire broke out in a train traveling south toward Tel Aviv.

Most of the injures from Tuesday’s incident were from cuts and smoke inhalation; only five were more serious injuries.

The fire started in the rear engine of the train due to an electrical short, according to Israel Railways.  The train doors reportedly did not open automatically as they are supposed to; some doors had begun to melt from the fire. Passengers broke windows and escaped the train that way.

The Transportation Ministry said it would open an investigation into the incident.

Israeli firefighters, underfunded heroes

Amir Levy, fire chief of the Western Galilee, remembers encountering a little girl in an elevator while he was training in the United States a year ago. She looked at him admiringly, commenting to her mother how firefighters are heroes.

“That’s not the reaction we were used to getting in Israel,” Levy told an audience of 250, including Los Angeles city officials and the morning shift of the Beverly Hills Fire Department, at an executive breakfast meeting of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on Dec. 14 at the Beverly Hilton.

Following the inferno in the Carmel forests earlier this month that left 44 dead, Israel’s firefighters are now getting recognition as heroes — but heroes whose skill and bravery are undermined by insufficient resources.

“The supplies have been depleted, the equipment has been used,” said Mark Egerman, a former mayor of Beverly Hills and the Western regional director of JNF’s Friends of Israel Firefighters. “They are in dire need of restocking, resupplying and building the organization to the next step.”

Israel’s fire departments are funded publicly at the municipal level, leaving them shortchanged, Egerman said. The ratio of firefighters to residents is 1 to 8,000, compared to the average of 1 to 1,000 in the Western world. Since the fire broke out on Dec. 2, JNF has raised more than $3 million. 

Levy expressed gratitude for the dedicated backup from around the world of firefighting forces who offered help.

“All firefighters around the world are one big family,” Levy said in a speech translated from the Hebrew, acknowledging his Beverly Hills counterparts in the audience.

“Really, the best family that God ever gave me was the fire department,” he said, relating his own personal story of growing up as a foster child with the dream of becoming a firefighter.

Levy made his home as a teen at the Akko fire station, where the firefighters adopted him and encouraged him to finish school. At 36, he is the youngest fire chief in Israel’s history.

In a gesture of solidarity, Capt. Dennis Andrews, president of the Beverly Hills Firemen’s Association, pledged $2,500 to Friends of Israel Firefighters and declared his interest in exchanging expertise.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of a long-term relationship.”

How the Hai-Bar animals were rescued from fire

Persian fallow deer now graze peacefully in their enclosures at the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve as ranger/caretaker Yakoub Makladeh feeds them nutritional pellets from a metal bucket.

Earlier this month, the lives of these rare animals were in jeopardy for four days as flames from Israel’s historic Carmel fire threatened the reserve nestled in the mountains outside Haifa. The vulture cage was destroyed; flames licked the fences of the deer enclosures, and the surrounding terrain is now ashen.

“Thursday, Dec. 2, around 11 a.m., we saw smoke coming from the direction of Isfiya, a Druze village south of our Hai-Bar location,” Makladeh remembers. “The animals already sensed something was wrong and were acting nervous.”

More than 100 rangers and volunteers, including Eli Amitay, director-general of Israel’s Nature and National Parks Authority, raced to the Hai-Bar to help. Minister of Environmental Protection Gilad Erdan also came to assess the situation.

Rare griffon vultures, whose cage overlooked a scenic green wadi, and other birds in their breeding cages — Egyptian vultures, Lanner falcons, Bonelli’s eagles — were evacuated immediately.

“By noon, the smoke was much stronger,” Makladeh said, “and we decided to move the rare fallow deer into a different and safer large enclosure built for this purpose.”

A heated discussion took place about whether to immobilize the deer and evacuate them to a zoo, but Makladeh, who has spent many years as the animals’ psychologist, companion and caretaker, argued vehemently against this, saying further stress from the immobilization procedure would increase the likelihood the animals might die.

“Some wanted us to leave the enclosure gates open and hope the deer would find their way to ‘safer pastures,’ but the deer wouldn’t have been likely to go,” Makladeh said.

So he asked everyone to clear the area, and then, “with friendly persuasion and a bucket full of their favorite feed,” led them to safe enclosures at the Hai-Bar.

“No one but Yakoub, whom the animals love and trust, could do this,” said Avinoam Lourie, a zoologist and former head of the Carmel Hai-Bar. Makladeh deferred all thanks to the Nature Reserve Authority rangers and volunteers, who “fought the fire with their bare hands,” cutting trees, building firebreaks with hoes, spraying water from tanks on their backs; and stopping the fire right at the fences.

While the fire was raging and communications were sparse, the outside world had waited nervously to hear whether the animals, let alone the people, had survived.  

“We fought continuously for more than 70 hours,” Makladeh said.

“People slept on the ground and lived on coffee and sandwiches. When I finally took a break, I realized that my clothes were totally torn and burnt, I was bleeding, and my boots were completely destroyed.”

On Dec. 6, when Lourie went to the Hai-Bar to speak with Makladeh, he found they had already brought back the birds of prey to some of the safe cages and had begun to rebuild the main burned vulture cage and repair the deer enclosures.

“We even put all the roe deer together in one pen,” Makladeh said, “normally a no-no, as males are naturally aggressive toward one another; but they had just shed their antlers, so they couldn’t hurt each other.”

Lourie noted that “ample numbers of fallow deer had already been released back into the wild, in the Galilee, near Jerusalem, and in a few reserves elsewhere in Israel.”

“We are, however, still near the beginning of the reintroduction process for the roe deer,” Lourie said, “and now is the season for griffon vultures to mate and build nests and lay eggs, which I hope they will do because their status in the wild is very bad.”

After the fire was out, Lourie took a walk around the Carmel Mountain area. “It was very sad for me to identify large numbers of porcupines, jackals, foxes, wild boars, songbirds, snakes and other animals that had burned to death. We need to preserve and protect every specimen to strengthen the population of our endangered animals,” Lourie concluded.

For more information and ways to help, visit parks.org.il.

Federations to dole out $2.4 million in fire aid

The Jewish Federations of North America said the federation system will distribute $2.4 million to help Israel recover from the Carmel Mountain fire.

JFNA, the umbrella organization of the more than 150 Jewish federations in North America, made the announcement Monday.

The fires last week killed 44 people, scorched more than 10,000 acres of forest and burned 100 homes and structures, including much of the Yemin Orde Youth Village.

JFNA, said it will allocate $550,000 to the system’s partners on the ground in Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Trauma Coalition. The umbrella group deployed an initial round of $340,000 on Monday for immediate relief efforts.

It is unclear how much of the $2.4 million was raised from individual donors responding to the fire and how much is coming from the reserves of individual federations. The response campaign received an early boost when the JUF-Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago pledged $500,000 of its own money just after the fire broke out two weeks ago.

The initial money will help pay for activities during the wildfires, such as relief for evacuees, respite activities for youth, and trauma relief and professional support. These programs included the Jewish Agency for Israel’s respite day camps for 4,700 children from the Carmel Forest region; and Israel Trauma Coalition’s direct care of bereaved and injured families and first responders.

JFNA has set up a special Carmel Wildfire Allocations Committee that will research program proposals to address mid- and long-term needs created by the fire, such as programs of the JDC, Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition, and will announce additional allocations based on those needs in the near future.

Palestinian firefighters denied entry into Israel for tribute

Three Palestinian firefighters were refused entry into Israel for a ceremony honoring Palestinian firemen who helped battle the Carmel blaze.

Only seven of the 10 firemen were to be allowed in for the ceremony that was scheduled to take place Sunday afternoon in the Druze village of Usfiya. The ceremony was canceled.

The Israel Defense Forces said the denial of entry for the three firemen was a bureaucratic error. The list of names did not include the firemen’s ID numbers, the IDF said, and that it did not receive the list in time. The army told Haaretz that it is working to get the correct permits and that the ceremony would be rescheduled, Haaretz reported.

Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi called the incident “not just a march of folly or a theater of the absurd but stupidity and the normative lordly attitude of the occupation regime.”

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority said that “It’s not clear how the same firefighters who got permits to go out and help snuff the fire now are now refused permits to their honoring ceremony.”

“We did this despite the occupation because it was our humane duty,” the PA statement added. “We knew the occupation would still be here after our assistance.”

The Palestinian firefighters were honored over the weekend by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Our neighbors faced a tragedy and it was our duty to do our humanitarian work toward our neighbors to protect the environment and human life,” Abbas said during the ceremony in his office in Ramallah.

Catching the firefighting bug

The death of 16-year-old Elad Rivan in the Carmel Forest fire last week has put the Fire Scouts on the map, piquing the interest of teenagers around the country in what had previously been a relatively unknown organization of volunteer firefighters. In the wake of Rivan’s tragic death, which occurred as he participated in the effort to rescue those trapped in the prison service bus that went up in flames, the Fire Scouts forum on the Israel Fire and Rescue Services website (www.102.co.il ) was inundated with requests from teenagers to join, prompting forum manager Shlomi Sa’adon, to post the following statement on Shabbat: “I see that the whole nation would like to volunteer, and I want to tell you that it’s very heartwarming. But you have to understand. It’s not that the fire services don’t want you, but a volunteer has to take a basic course. If you think we will send you into an inferno like this without prior training, you are wrong. This is not some Lag Ba’omer bonfire. This is real fire, which kills, burns, scorches and consumes everything in its path, so we’re sorry.”

The Fire Scouts was founded in 1959 as a volunteer group for lsraeli teenagers and is currently integrated into the community service projects offered at the country’s high schools. According to the fire services website, the scouts are an auxiliary firefighting force, but they do not operate on the front lines. They also pitch in on holidays when there is a high likelihood of fires, like Independence Day, with its abundance of barbecues and fireworks, and Lag Ba’omer, which is celebrated with bonfires.
Haifa Fire Scouts

There are about 350 Fire Scouts throughout the country. Each is required to do at least one five-hour shift a week at a fire station. Upon admission to the organization, they take a basic three-day course, and about eight or nine months later, a more advanced course. Rivan was supposed to have been an instructor in an advanced course this week.

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

In aftermath of tragedy, Israel begins picking up the pieces

In the aftermath of the deadliest fire in Israel’s history, Israelis this week set to the task of burying the dead, cleaning up and figuring out what exactly went wrong — and who is to blame.

Even before the blaze in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa came under control Dec. 5, Israelis were asking why the country wasn’t better prepared for a wildfire of this magnitude. In all, 42 people were killed, about 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, 17,000 people were forced to evacuate, more than 12,000 acres were burned and an estimated 5 million trees were lost.

“The Carmel disaster highlights the outrageous gaps in Israel’s strategic and day-to-day readiness,” the editorialists at Haaretz wrote Dec. 5 while echoing a call for a state commission of inquiry to examine who bears responsibility for the failures of the Israeli fire service.

“What’s better to spend the State of Israel’s money on, firefighting aircraft or an F-15 fighter jet?” wrote Eitan Haber, a former Rabin administration official and now a columnist for Ynet.

The damage to the area of the Carmel Forest in northern Israel was estimated at about $75 million, including damage to towns and kibbutzim, destroyed forests and damaged roads. Yemin Orde, an aliyah youth village founded in 1953 that has served as a home and school to thousands of immigrant youths, most recently Ethiopians and Russians, was severely burned. In the artists’ village of Ein Hod, 10 houses and an art gallery were destroyed.

On Dec. 5, the Israeli Cabinet approved a $16.5 million aid package to assist damaged communities, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that each person whose home suffered severe fire damage be given an immediate aid disbursement of about $700.

Calls came from many quarters for the resignation of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose ministry is responsible for the state’s firefighting forces. Yishai also is accused of refusing fire-truck donations from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Yishai said his ministry was not funded well enough to purchase needed equipment — in 2001, he noted, Ariel Sharon’s government voted to eliminate air support for firefighting — and told Israel Radio that he was a target because of his Sephardic heritage.

Israel has 16 firefighters per 100,000 residents. By contrast, the United States, Japan and Greece have five to seven times that number per capita, the Associated Press reported. In total, Israel has 1,400 firefighters.

A 14-year-old resident of the Druze village of Ussfiya was arrested Dec. 6 after admitting to starting the fire. The teen reportedly said he was smoking a nargila water pipe and threw a live coal into an open area before returning to school.

The arrest was announced hours after two teenage brothers from the same village arrested over the weekend on suspicion of negligence in starting the fire were released from detention by a Haifa court. The teens had been accused of lighting a bonfire near their home that sparked the blaze.

High winds and dry conditions prompted by Israel’s parched winter thus far provided fuel for the blaze, which began tearing through northern Israel on Dec. 2. Northern Israel is covered by fields and trees, some natural forests and others planted over the last several decades — many of them by pioneers during the British Mandate period. Others were planted with donations from Diaspora Jews through the Jewish National Fund.

With its green hills, the country’s north has a Mediterranean flavor distinct from its more Middle Eastern south, which is covered by desert. After the fire, the Israeli government said it would invest the resources to make the north green again.

The fire’s rapid spread revealed a strategic weakness that could be exploited by its enemies, Israeli commentators wrote.

Meanwhile, numerous figures in the Arab world cited the fire as punishment from God for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its occupation of Arab lands. The Palestinian prime minister in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, said the fire was a “strike from Allah.”

The spiritual leader of the Israeli Orthodox Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, also said the fire was divine punishment, attributing the blaze to the sin of lack of observance of the Sabbath.

During the height of the blaze, Israeli’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, led thousands in prayer at the Western Wall. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger called on Israelis to give charity and read Psalms to bring about the fire’s end.

For its part, the Israeli government issued a rare call for international assistance. Among the countries that responded were Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Germany, Russia, France, Switzerland, Britain, Spain and the United States. The Palestinian Authority also sent 21 firefighters and four fire trucks to help battle the blaze; Israeli media reported that the trucks were a gift to the Palestinians from the European Union.

Op-Ed: Fire’s devastation can lead to positive change

It is hard to explain just how devastated Israelis are by the Carmel fire. But it is easier to explain how that devastation can become a positive force for positive change, right now, in Israel.

The fire consumed at least 42 lives, thousands of forested acres and millions of shekels in property. With the assistance of a dozen foreign nations, the beleaguered firefighters finally got the resources they needed to battle a blaze that consumed more than its obvious victims. What may have perished in the fire is Israel’s sense of self-reliance, and the confidence of ordinary people that they can rely on their government and society to meet their needs.

Just as the Second Lebanon War provoked questions about Israel’s readiness to withstand a bombing campaign, the Carmel fire illuminates issues that have been too readily subsumed in the endless attention to the conflict. We at the New Israel Fund are painfully aware that Israel is often seen two-dimensionally, even by its own government. It is of course a priority for Israel to pursue peace and security, but an exclusive focus on these issues skews attention and resources away from an equally critical task.

We, the organization that founded and funded Israel’s civil society and that works every day on intractable social issues, know what that task is. It is building a society founded on equity and social justice, where every person has the opportunity to live a decent life, and building the infrastructure and the institutions that provide this opportunity to all. It is security, yes, but in a sense that extends far beyond fighter planes and a separation fence. What Israel discovered last week is that while it prides itself on its strength, it is in some ways far, far too weak.

There wasn’t the proper equipment for fighting fires, and the supply of fire-retardant chemicals was exhausted even before the Carmel ignited. Just a few weeks ago, when the 40-story Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv was burning, it turned out that the Tel Aviv Fire Department does not have a hook-and-ladder truck that extends beyond 10 stories. Israel sits on an earthquake fault and has done little to plan for that eventuality, while in a drought-stricken region water and development policies are enmeshed in money interests and politics, not in sustainable growth.

For too long, under successive governments, Israeli society has polarized between the center and the periphery, the Jews and the Arabs, the religious and the secular, the haves and the have-nots. The current government, paying attention to the demands of its political coalition, is channeling even more money into stipends for non-working yeshiva students and radical settler incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. But every government has been held hostage to the demands of specific constituencies, the inequalities persist, and now poverty in Israel is more widespread than in any of the 30 European Union nations. Income inequality in Israel is second only to the United States among developed nations, and Israeli schools, public lands and infrastructure are deteriorating quickly.

This situation can and must change. The Carmel fire may have been Israel’s Katrina, but we and many people like us will insist on a faster recovery than New Orleans experienced. We know the real strength of Israel is not only in its military but in its people—the thousands of ordinary people we work with every day.

The day the fire started, grass-roots organizations of the North began mobilizing. A day after it ended, our Haifa office was already gearing up with our grantees and partners for the huge tasks of long-term recovery. We will work to ensure that there is compensation for the victims and the homeless, and that it is distributed fairly. Environmental groups are too infrequently consulted in Israel; we will make sure they are at the table when the future of the Carmel Forest is considered.

The fire re-ignited anti-Arab invective in some segments of society; our longstanding leadership of Arab and Jewish groups in the North will substantiate efforts to eradicate racism and build a truly shared society.

Israel’s beautiful Carmel Forest is burnt and black. Its people’s faith in their government is shaken. But Israel does have a civil society, which means that there is a force that enables ordinary people to change their circumstances, even if they are not wealthy or politically connected. Civil society empowers and ennobles and, yes, sometimes enrages the powers-that-be.

Now is the time for ordinary Israelis to insist on leadership that is accountable and fair, and on a society that plans for peace and prosperity, not just for defense and war. It is time for all of us, Israeli and American, to see Israel in all its dimensions, in all its needs and in all its possibilities.

House of Representatives mourns fire losses

The U.S. House of Representatives mourned the loss of life in Israel’s worst-ever forest fire and pledged to support assistance.

The nonbinding resolution passed unanimously Tuesday “mourns the loss of life and extends condolences to the families affected by the fire in northern Israel” and “supports the Obama Administration’s offer of, and rapid efforts to provide, United States fire fighting assistance to Israel in response to this disaster.”

The resolution, which was sponsored by outgoing Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), also recognized other countries that have assisted, including Turkey. Pro-Israel lawmakers in recent months have criticized Turkey for its deteriorating ties with Israel.

Op-Ed: Response to fire illuminates challenges for Israel

One of the reactions of Israelis to the fact that their government called on the international community for assistance to combat the Carmel Forest fire is a sense of shame. After all, Israel is a leader in the high-tech world and an innovator in dealing with crisis situations. Now Israel had to admit that it wasn’t capable of dealing with the blaze alone.

More than that, for some in Israel there is a reluctance to admit that Israel is not isolated, that not everyone is against Israel. The willingness of nations and peoples to rush to Israel’s side, including the Turks and the Palestinians, challenged this assumption.

I remember when Yitzhak Rabin took over as prime minister in 1993, his inaugural address to the Knesset took a different tack than the norm. He spoke to the idea that Israelis need to get beyond the way of thinking that assumed that everyone was against them. He argued that this was neither accurate nor productive, as it led to distorted policies.

Rabin in some quarters was hailed for his comments; in others he was condemned.

Which brings us to our own times: Where do things stand and how does the response to the fire illuminate matters?

I would argue that there are two parallel tracks, both of which need to be understood, taken seriously and factored in to policymaking.

On the one hand is the dangerous process of delegitimization campaigns against Israel. These campaigns are picking up momentum around the world. Boycotts of Israel by trade unions, universities and entertainers seem to pop up almost on a daily basis. Israeli officials refrain from visiting certain countries lest they be arrested on war criminal charges. The U.N.’s Goldstone Report questions Israel’s right to self-defense.

Israel is compared to the South African apartheid regime or to the Nazis. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can openly call for Israel’s disappearance without any repercussions. And the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva focuses most of its attention and resolutions on condemning alleged Israeli violations of human rights.

In other words, there are grounds for concluding that the world has turned against Israel in ways that even suggest a heavy dose of anti-Semitism within it. It is no longer the individual Jew who is the target of anti-Semitism, some argue, but the collective Jew through the assault on the Jewish state. And it is argued, with some reason, that it is not particular Israeli policies but Israel’s very existence that is the problem for many of its critics.

The picture, however, is more complicated, and the response of many nations to Israel’s plea for help this week is the tip of the iceberg. It is obvious that not only does Israel have a special relationship with the United States, but it has excellent bilateral relations with states throughout the globe, including some that routinely vote against Israel at the United Nations.

Moreover, even in the Arab world things are not simple.

It is true that what we all want, an acceptance by Arab leaders of the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the Middle East, has not been achieved. Having said that, on practical grounds there has been progress over the years in the acceptance of the reality that Israel is here to stay. Indeed, that notion is so strong in the Arab world that Ahmadinejad feels it necessary to harp on the idea that Israel will disappear in an effort to get the Arabs to turn back the clock to a time when they not only rejected Israel’s legitimacy but envisioned ways to achieve Israel’s demise.

Arab acceptance of the reality of Israel is not insignificant because it then forces an answer to the question of how one deals with an entity that’s here to stay. Anwar Sadat’s answer after the Yom Kippur war was to make peace.

We see these changes as well in the WikiLeaks documents: Arab leaders such as the king of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince of Bahrain focusing on the Iranian threat and understanding the common interest that Israel and the moderate Arabs have in containing Iran.

And now comes the Carmel fire. The fact that both Turkey and the Palestinian Authority provided assistance to Israel is not insignificant. It obviously does not negate the problematic aspects of Turkish and Palestinian policies toward Israel. But it should alert Israeli leaders to openings, to shades of gray, to possibilities that things don’t always have to remain the same, to the idea that resentment can also be overcome.

The great challenge for supporters of Israel in the period ahead is not to lose sight of either of the two tracks. There are immense dangers to Israel up ahead, as reflected in the delegitimization efforts, and we must do our all to combat them. But there are opportunities as well, and the mark of leadership is to explore them and seed them while never ignoring the landmines that lie beside them.

(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. His latest book is “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype,” Palgrave Macmillan, November 2010).