SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — 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.
(Rachel Liel is the executive director in Israel and Daniel Sokatch the CEO of the New Israel Fund.)