Analysis

The Downsides of Israel’s Missions of Mercy Abroad

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.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Nepalese people look on as Israeli Army soldiers from a rescue unit get instructions on the first day of their mission in Kathmandu on April 28, 2015.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Here are four things that Israel does well. Actually, it does them extraordinarily well. 

Few, if any countries, are so fast at using every means at their disposal to extricate its citizens in trouble abroad — whether it’s the foreign ministry, which expends a significant proportion of its limited resources on bailing businessmen out of jail and searching for lost trekkers on mountainsides, private specialists, who have made fortunes out of desperate parents of hikers in distress, and just about every other Israeli on Facebook quick to join an online search.

Ask any Israeli with a dual nationality which of his two governments will be there first in their hour of need. For all the longing of many Israelis for a second passport, they know who will be there when the chips are down. There really is no question. It’s a peculiar Israeli trait that no-one gets left behind in any circumstance and it really shouldn’t be taken for granted. Though it is. 

And even when no Israelis are involved, few countries are as fast as Israel in mobilizing entire delegations to rush to the other side of the world. It has been proved time and again in recent years, after the earthquake in Haiti, the typhoon in the Philippines and the quake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan. For a country of Israel’s size and resources, without conveniently located aircraft carriers and overseas bases, it is quite an impressive achievement.

Another thing the Israelis are good at in this respect — and you wouldn’t normally expect it of them — is that, despite their usual brashness and know-it-all attitude, they don’t rush in immediately, but wait for a clear understanding of what the local authorities need most. Only then do they fly in with a tailor-made solution. After Fukushima, for example, the Japanese preferred for the Israelis to come later, after the rescue efforts were over, and open a field hospital to help with routine treatment in areas where the regular health services had been worst hit. 

Members of the aid and rescue delegation board an El Al plane to Nepal, April 27, 2015.Credit: Yaniv Kubovich

And this of course highlights another field in which Israelis excel, often too much for their own good, but in these situations it’s just what you need — improvisation and off-the-cuff solutions.

As yet another rescue mission by the IDF and Israeli national and private rescue organizations is setting up in quake-hit Nepal, Israelis have every right to be proud of all this again. However, there are some flies in the ointment because there are also four things Israeli do rather badly which are also coming to the fore now.

For a nation of immigrants, whose young generation fly off to every corner of the world the moment they’re out of the army, Israelis are terribly parochial. The focus of the local media, professional journalists and Facebookers/tweeters was almost exclusively on the Israelis stuck in Kathmandu and on the hillsides. As of writing, there are reportedly still 11 Israeli tourists in Nepal who have yet to make contact with their families. All the rest of the Israelis there got out with at worst minor injuries.

Experiencing a massive earthquake is a traumatic experience, but for God’s sake, 10,000 people may have been killed, hundreds of thousands are homeless, historic landmarks have been obliterated. Most of the Israelis who wanted to leave are already on their way home, or back by now. Parents with their adopted surrogate children were flown out first by privately chartered business jets. Israelis found food and shelter in Kathmandu, both at the embassy and the Chabad house.

The headlines in some of the local papers of how they “went through hell” epitomize not only everything that is wrong with the Israeli media but the insularity of Israeli society in general. The media in other countries have similar tendencies, but also a certain sense of proportion. 

And now that nearly all the Israelis who were there during the quake are accounted for, the media have new local heroes to focus on. Our brave men and women selflessly working there to deliver succor to the Nepalese. Once again, when the saviors are Israeli, they will be getting much more attention than the victims they are aiding.

I’ve argued about this in the past with Israeli spokespeople who have insisted they are simply doing their jobs by informing the public about what the organizations they represent are doing, and they have a point. But it doesn’t fix the impression of an Israel that is trying to milk tragedy in a faraway country for PR benefit.

Disasters are sexy, every news editor and publicist knows that. The problem is that so much of Israeli assistance to developing countries is disaster relief and not nearly enough is the mundane, much less media-friendly work that is needed in-between the brief periods when the West’s attention is momentarily fixed on those parts of the world.

The sad reality is that Israel doesn’t do international development well. Sure, Israeli companies and researchers are world-leaders in various fields of agricultural technology and tropical medicine and are busy doing incredible work in every continent, but so little of that is publicly-financed. The OECD recommends that its members dedicate 0.35 percent of their national budgets to international development, Israel spends less than a quarter of that. This point shouldn’t detract from the contribution of the rescue delegations, but it does highlight the fact that they are woefully inadequate in fulfilling Israelis’ self-image.

And here’s the fourth way Israelis fail themselves. All the hype leads to the delusion that somehow these missions of mercy should earn us membership of the enlightened nations’ club. But it never can. Using hard-earned capabilities and a tiny fraction of your human and material resources to help those in need in countries far away is what a decent democracy does. It won’t make you one, no matter how much you expend on overseas aid.

The way Israelis embark on these laudable campaigns simply 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. Footage of officers in IDF uniform extricating survivors from beneath ruined buildings and delivering babies in a sophisticated field hospital won’t replace other disturbing images.

The fact that Israel can mobilize itself so effectively and carry out complex operations thousands of miles beyond its borders won’t make the world regard us differently. If anything, it will increase the mystification of how such a nation can’t get around to fixing such fundamental flaws back home if it so badly wants to be a member of the club.