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Why Israel got to Surfside so fast

Yes, Israelis rushed to help in Surfside. Because that's the entire purpose of the Jewish people.

Rescue workers work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, Friday, June 25, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. The apartment building partially collapsed on Thursday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(RNS) — A little more than 10 years ago, I was traveling on an airplane, sitting next to a man who was wearing a uniform. We got to talking, and he told me he had just gotten back from Haiti, where he had been part of an American medical team that had been delivering aid to the then-earthquake stricken island nation. He proudly showed me photographs of his team at work.

A few minutes later, he asked me: “So, what do you do?”

I confessed: “I am a rabbi.”

With this, he launched into a monologue of praise — for Israel. He regaled me with anecdotes about the Israeli medical personnel and first responders who had come to Haiti to help. By the time he was done, I was ready to invite him to address a Federation event.

There were tears in his eyes.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said to me in a whisper. “Thank you for what your people have done.”

“Thank you for what your people have done.”

Over the past few days, I have replayed that scene over and over in my mind.

Almost immediately after the horrific collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, members of the Homefront Command of the Israel Defense Forces were on their way to the site to help with search and rescue efforts. United Hatzalah in cooperation with El Al will also be sending a team from its Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit to assist victims of the condo collapse.

We must mention, as well, the extraordinary efforts of Mexico and its own Jewish community in helping to find survivors.

Consider a short history of Israel’s presence in the world.

August, 1953: Ionian Islands, Greece. An earthquake claimed more than 1,000 lives. Israeli Navy ships were participating in an exercise in the area. They helped the survivors and gave them necessary medical treatment.

September, 1985: Mexico City, Mexico. Four earthquakes took more than 10,000 lives. The IDF sent a delegation of medical and search and rescue teams, consisting of 350 reservists.

July, 1994: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hezbollah orchestrated the terror attack on the AMIA Building, the headquarters of the Jewish community, claiming 85 lives. Israelis were on the scene almost immediately.

August, 1998: Nairobi, Kenya. A car bomb exploded near the U.S. Embassy. An Israel Defense Forces task force of 170 people, including search and rescue teams and medical experts, came to the scene. They were able to rescue three survivors. 

August, 2005, New Orleans, Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina. Israel sent 80 tons of humanitarian aid.

January, 2006: Nairobi, Kenya. A five-story building collapsed. Israel sent a team of 80 search and rescue personnel to assist with the rescue efforts.

November, 2012: Accra, Ghana. A large department store collapsed. An IDF Home Front Command delegation arrived to help with the relief effort, and they were able to rescue 78 people from the debris.

September, 2017: Mexico City, Mexico. An earthquake shook the city. A delegation of 70 men and women of the IDF came to help in relief efforts.

And, yes, of course — Haiti, and now, Surfside.

But for Israel’s perennial critics — for those who engage in the moral aerobics of finding every flaw in the Jewish state — these stories elicit snickers and/or yawns.

They call it “washing.”

Consider the words of Ethan Felson in his essay, “When Progressives Meet Israel,” in Menachem Creditor’s new collection of essays, “Fault Lines: Exploring the complicated place of Progressive American Zionism.” The book is simply amazing (full disclosure: the volume contains my essay on Jewish “wokeness”).

A perennial critique of those who show a softer side of Israelis is that we are “______-washing.” The trend started with the infamous lie about “pinkwashing”: the myth that friends of Israel promote its inclusive policies for LGBTQ people only to distract people from their oppression of the Palestinians. In a similar vein, discussion about Israelis who work on protecting the environment is ridiculed as “greenwashing.” The list goes on. Those who celebrate Israeli cuisine are accused of “dishwashing.” (Really).

So, Israel’s record of sending aid in disaster situations? What would you call that — “compassion-washing”?

I recall the story of the king who commissioned a portrait painter. The artist intensely scrutinized the monarch’s face.

“I am looking at you very closely, Your Majesty, because I am a realistic painter. I see that you still have the scars of childhood acne, and I want to make sure that I capture those blemishes accurately.”

To which the king replied: “You are quite welcome to include those old blemishes in my portrait. But I only ask that you do not neglect to paint my face.”

For Israel’s critics, there is no face.

There are only blemishes.

Many believe Israel cannot do anything right.

Many insist on lifting their index fingers (and other digits, as well) and saying, “But, Israel …” 

Many insist on doing to Israel what they would never dream of doing to any other nation or people — essentializing the entire story of Israel and turning it into a Manichean Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader morality tale — because of the problematic nature of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.

News flash: If you believe the world’s only Jewish state can do nothing good, then you are saying the majority of Jews in the world are not capable of doing good. You have successfully demonized the Jews.

You are no better than a medieval antisemite.

And, if you say Israel was quick to get to Surfside because of its substantial Jewish population (which is not entirely wrong — not that there is anything wrong with that), I invite you to go a little deeper.

Because you would have to explain Israel’s rush to Ghana, Kenya and New Orleans. Not a whole lot of Jews in those places.

Now you know why there needs to be a Jewish state. Not only as a place of refuge for Jews — this, and this alone, would be enough.

To be a Jewish state is to take up the banner of the Jewish people, which is the eternal banner of the Jewish faith — to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, through being an “Or l’goyim,” a light to the nations.

Let me put it to you this way: When Israel is at its best, it serves as the public relations department for the Jewish people and for Judaism itself.

Israel responds immediately — not because the victims are Jewish.

Israel responds immediately — because Israel is Jewish.