Uriel Heilman - Israel's first responders: Helping global victims... and Israel's image
Israel's first responders: Helping global victims... and Israel's image

Israel's first responders: Helping global victims... and Israel's image

When Dovie Maisel first heard about the devastating earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, he was in Mexico City on a mission to recover the remains of a Jewish billionaire who, along with several family members, had been killed two days earlier along with several family members in a helicopter crash when he first heard about the devastating earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010.

As the chief operations officer for the Israel-based ZAKA International Rescue Unit (ZAKA is a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification), Maisel knew there was no time to waste. He quickly switched gears and worked his connections to get his team a place on a special Mexican Air Force Hercules aircraft bound for Haiti.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world in Israel, the text messages started coming in to Shachar Zahavi’s cell phone in the middle of the night: "“What are we going to do about Haiti?”

Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid, an umbrella organization for more than a dozen Israeli and Jewish humanitarian groups, including B’nai B’rith International, hadn’t even heard yet yet to hear about the earthquake that had rocked Port-au-Prince, leaving tens of thousands dead. But by morning, he already was in the thick of preparations to dispatch a 15-person Israeli relief team to the country consisting of doctors, nurses, paramedics and logistics experts.

At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces wereas mobilizing a much larger aid mission, and Foreign Ministry officials were scrambling to get an advance team into Haiti to preparelay the groundwork for the delegation’s arrival. Within hours of the quake, officials from Israel’s consulates in New York and Miami were on civilian planes heading toward the Dominican Republic, where they were to rendezvous with the local Israeli ambassador before heading overland into neighboring Haiti. Their goal: rent vehicles, find a site to establish a field hospital, and take care of all the necessary logistics so the 240-person IDF-organized aid team could hit the ground running.

“When we’re needed, we understand that time makes a big difference when it comes to saving people,” said Brig.- Gen. Shalom Ben-Arie, the IDF Homefront Command’s topcommanding officer, told B’nai B’rith Magazine recently. “The speed with which we arrive is one of the most important factors.”

Before most countries had even organized Haiti rescue teams, Israeli aid workers and rescue dogs were on the ground. ZAKA volunteers found and extracted eight students still alive from the wreckage of a collapsed university building. The IsraAid medical team saved the life of a 6-year-old girl who had been pulled from the rubble. The IDF set up a field hospital near a soccer stadium that, as the only place in the city with advanced medical facilities, immediately became the go-to point for Haiti’s most gravely wounded.

The Israelis’ speed and efficiency did not go unnoticed around the world.

“The Israeli field hospital is phenomenal,” Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News told “Good Morning America” about a week after the quake. “They were up and running on Saturday morning [four days after the earthquake], way ahead of the United States’ hospital.”

When Besser encountered a woman in labor named Soraya in a Port-au-Prince park, he said he contacted the only medical facility he knew about in town: the one run by the Israelis.

“Before long, Soraya had an operating room waiting for her,” said Besser, who helped deliver the baby. “Ultrasounds, IVs, medications. Soraya was now getting better care than she could have ever imagined.”

On the field hospital’s second day of operation, just four days after the quake, Israeli doctors delivered a baby boy whose grateful mother declared the boy’s name would be Israel.

It was a moment that captured the twin reasons Israelis go to disaster zones like Haiti in the first place: to help people in need, and to give Israel a good name.

First to respond

“It’s something very good for Israel, because Israel has so much to give,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, which is involved in humanitarian efforts directly, through IsraAid and through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. “We’ve watched over the years as Israel has become a very important first responder.”

Whether clad in IDF uniforms, wearing the flag of Israel on their shoulders or holding Shabbat prayers during brief breaks from their rescue work, the Israeli aid workers’ visible presence in disaster zones helps promote a positive image of Israel in a world more accustomed to seeing the Jewish state in a negative light.

“I am sure it is good for the Israeli image, but we’re not doing it only because of this,” said Danny Biran, ambassador of logistical and administrative affairs for Israel’s mission to the United Nations and the Americas. “We are doing it because we believe in what we are doing.”

“We always carry an Israeli flag and hang it wherever we work. We don’t do anything under the radar,” said Zahavi of IsraAid. “It’s important for us to show that we come on behalf of the Israeli people, and people should know we’re there for them.”

From the earthquake in Haiti to the tsunami in Japan to smaller-scale disasters in Latin America, Africa and even the Middle East, Israel is fast establishing a reputation as a nimble first responder to calamities the world over.

After the Haiti earthquake, media outlets from the British-based Sky News to Atlanta-based CNN carried breathless accounts of Israel’s astoundingly speedy and effective response to the disaster there.

“How did a country that has never experienced a major earthquake respond so quickly and efficiently?” asked CNN’s Ella Perlis in one report on “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Even fFormer U.S. president Bill Clinton singled out Israel for praise on a visit to Haiti after the earthquake.

“The Israelis, who have had a lot of battlefield experience, have great battlefield hospitals, and I am profoundly grateful to them, and I think they have done a great job,” Clinton said.

Haiti’s then-president, Rene Preval, singled out Israel for thanks for Israelis’ efforts in his country.

“Israel did a wonderful job,” Mathieu Eugene, a Haitian-American member of the New York City Council, told B’nai B’rith Magazine. “Israel quickly responded to the disaster and showed remarkable speed, humanitarianism and goodwill toward the victims of the disaster.”

“It’s something very good for Israel, because Israel has so much to give,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, which is involved in humanitarian efforts directly through IsraAid and through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. “We’ve watched over the years as Israel has become a very important first responder.”

Why Israel

Israel has some special advantages when it comes to disaster assistance, but it also has some unique challenges.

The country’s own experiences with terrorism and war have made it a veritable testing ground for disaster response. And the culture of quick adaptation and agility that suffuses Israel—from IDF soldiers who learn how to improvise on the fly in response to shifting threats, to the high-tech companies that have managed to turn innovative ideas into popular products long before their global competitors—is key when it comes to disaster assistance.

“We’re small and swift,” said ZAKA’s Maisel. “We decide we’re going, and we’re gone.”

But Iit’s not always easy, however.

Every so often, disaster-stricken countries refuse Israeli assistance because their governments neither have nor want diplomatic ties with Israel, at least not publicly. After a massive earthquake struck Pakistan in 2005, the country declined Israeli aid offers.

Sometimes, countries just don’t want help from anyone. After the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the Japanese government for 16 days refused to accept international aid. Likewise, when multiple sites in Mumbai came under coordinated attack by several terrorist gunmen in November 2008, including the city’s Chabad Jewish center, the Israeli Air Force readied a jet for takeoff to East Asia, but the Indian government refused aid while the attacks were ongoing.

That’s where Israeli NGOs come in.

After India turned down Israel’s offer of help, ZAKA officials phoned up the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv and were able to get emergency visas for the country. They hopped on a private jet to Turkey and from there caught the next commercial flight to India, arriving in Mumbai while the shooting attacks were still under way. The official Israeli government delegation eventually got the green light to help three days later, but by then ZAKA already had identified all the victims at Mumbai’s Chabad house, where the attackers had killed six people.

“We’re not obligated to any senior or governmental decisions. We’re not limited to countries with diplomatic connections with Israel,” Maisel said. “We’re much more versatile in the field.”

Similarly, IsraAid was able to start distributing food and medical aid in Japan just two days after the tsunami, even though the country was still officially closed to foreign aid at the time.

“The Japanese community was very impressed with the speed of the response of the many Israeli groups,” said Heather Tomoyasu, an official with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New York. The chamber was so impressed that it created a new prize this year, the Luminary Award, to honor IsraAid. The chamber also will give IsraAid a $50,000 grant.

“So many groups went and responded and pulled out quickly, but they have a two-year commitment,” Tomoyasu said. “We were really impressed.”

The Israelis who drop everything at a moment’s notice to volunteer in earthquake zones, at terrorist attack sites and in the aftermath of natural disasters like tsunamis and floods range from IDF medics to civilian social workers.

“There’s always a fight over spots,” Ben-Arie said. “It seems that everyone wants to help.” For many, helping is a life-changing experience.

“I had been to Chad, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Kenya and Georgia on IsraAid missions, and I had never ever seen anything of this scale,” said Alan Schneider, the director of the B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem, Alan Schneider, who went to Haiti days after the earthquake to help coordinate the logistics of IsraAid’s effort. “It was like a war scene.”

Maisel, who has worked at more disaster sites than he can count, including in Israel, was so affected by the experience that, he says, said, “There’s my life until Haiti, and my life after Haiti.”

His colleague Mati Goldstein, the head of ZAKA’s delegation to Haiti, described a “Shabbat from hell” in an e-mail shortly after the quake.

“Everywhere, the acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air. It’s just like the stories we are told of the Holocaust—thousands of bodies everywhere,” Goldstein wrote. “You have to understand that the situation is true madness, and the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped. It is beyond comprehension.”

To lift their spirits, the rescue workers from ZAKA taught Haitian survivors to sing “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem.”

It wasn’t just an exercise in group song. From the Orthodox Jewish volunteers who lead ZAKA to the brigadier general who coordinates the IDF’s aid efforts, Israeli aid workers say Jewish values are part and parcel of their work in disaster zones.

“It’s tied to the Judaism we represent,” Ben-Arie said. “The Jewish people are a nation that always offered humanitarian help. It’s part of our tradition and the Jewish character.”

But Israeli officials also acknowledge that there may be tangible benefits to their work overseas.

For decades, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has run agriculture programs and trained farmers in Africa and Latin America in a bid to strengthen ties to those countries.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, which tracks media coverage of Israel, said that in the days after the Haiti quake media outlets around the world ran thousands of positive stories about Israel’s quick response to the catastrophe.

Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York, said that the Brand Asset Evaluator -- a database that tracks perceptions of some 25,000 brands, including those of 55 nations – found that the strength of Israel’s “brand” has risen 16 percent since 2008.

“We detected a dramatic change in the perception of Israel as a country that cares about the world,” Aharoni said.

The head of one major Israeli company that declined to be identified said he suspects that Israelis’ aid to Japan following the tsunami was a factor in the Japanese government’s decision to approve a long-pending corporate takeover deal involving his company.

Ben-Arie described the IDF’s overseas work as part of a national security calculation. “Defending Israel does not necessarily happen only along our borders,” Ben-Arie said. “Part of defending Israel’s civilian population is helping other nations so that if there is an earthquake here, those countries will help us. So we believe that when we do this, it contributes to national security.”

Indeed, when a massive forest fire broke out in Israel’s Carmel Forest in December 2010, countries as close as Turkey, Jordan and Egypt and as far as Russia and the United States rushed to help extinguish the blaze.

Staying for the long term

When the dust settles and the emergency part of relief missions end, most foreign aid teams go home. That’s true of the Israeli delegations, too. , bBut there are also a few Israelis who stay behind.

“Helping is not only about how you respond immediately after a disaster, but what you do on a long-term basis,” Zahavi said. “You have to help rebuild the community.”

With volunteers from Israel as well as Diaspora Jews, IsraAid member organizations have trauma experts in Japan training teachers in tsunami-stricken areas to help children cope with their traumatic experiences, aid workers in the new Republic of South Sudan distributing food and tents in areas around the capital city of Juba, and a medical clinic in Haiti staffed by rotating shifts of doctors from Israel.

Stacey Miller-Nirenberg is one of a handful of Israelis working in Haiti for Tevel B’Tzedek, an IsraAid member organization that focuses on social and environmental justice. In Haiti, the group runs educational, health and agriculture-modernization programs. Haitians are taught how to transform their subsistence farms to income-generating cash crop operationscash crops that can generate ongoing income, take literacy courses so they can learn to read and write, and receive vocational training. The Israelis set up the programs, but Haitians are recruited and trained to run them.

The idea, says Miller-Nirenberg, Tevel B’Tzedek’s country director, is to give Haitians the tools to improve their living situation even after the Israelis eventually leave.

“We’re trying to give them a hand up, not a handout,” Miller-Nirenberg told B’nai B’rith Magazine in a telephone interviewsaid. “If you want people to get out of the quagmire that they’re in, you need to do that with something sustainable long term.”

Miller-Nirenberg, who has been stationed in Haiti since November 2010, says her motivation for staying comes out of a sense of responsibility.

“I think it’s important for us—not only as Israelis, but as Jews—to be doing tikkun olam and social justice wherever we are,” she said. “It offends my sensibilities that people are living this way in today’s world. If I can do something to help, why not?”

© Uriel Heilman 2012. All rights reserved.