The importance of this week’s top Israeli news stories seems to pale in comparison with the humanitarian catastrophe in Haiti, and the urgent relief effort there.
As a result, I discarded the idea of writing about the intentional humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador to Israel at the hands of Avigdor Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry. Any other week, perhaps, the crude, highhanded bungling of a not-unreasonable Israeli diplomatic protest by Lieberman and his deputy, Danny Ayalon (and the public reprimand of them by President Shimon Peres) would have been fodder for discussion in this column. Just not this week.
And I’ve also chosen not to write at length on remarks made on Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who seemed to deflate recent hopes about an imminent return to negotiations. In a statement issued by his bureau, the Prime Minister denied reports that he had come to an agreement with Egypt on declaring Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, maintaining instead that Israel would never compromise on “united Jerusalem”. Netanyahu’s denial caused Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ali Aboul Gheit to reverse his previously upbeat assessment of the situation.
But two Israel-related aspects of the tragedy in Haiti are worthy of note. On the positive side of the ledger, Israel responded swiftly to the crisis, dispatching anIDF medical aid mission to Port-au-Prince. Israel’s efforts should not be surprising: The country has a long and praiseworthy tradition of helping in areas stricken by disaster, and its humanitarian response is a justified point of pride for Israeli citizens.
On the other hand, I was struck this week by the eerie resemblance between televangelist Pat Robertson’s commentary on Haiti, and the reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – the spiritual overlord of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in Israel.
For the few who haven’t heard, Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on that nation’s supposed “pact with the devil”, dating – he claimed – from the early 19th century. Now compare this to Yosef’s treatment of Katrina four years ago: “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study… black people reside there (in New Orleans). Blacks will study the Torah? (God said) let’s bring a tsunami and drown them. Hundreds of thousands remained homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God.”
Yesterday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs summarily dismissed such remarks as merely “stupid” – but the problem goes deeper and the danger is greater. Robertson and Yosef, after all, are not cloistered eccentrics, but leaders of large and influential movements in their respective countries. And their theodical explanations of natural disaster are not idle ravings, but a harsh dehumanizing force that pins blame on the victim, hardens the heart of their followers, and desensitizes them to human suffering anywhere outside their circle.
This is not meant as a knock on religion, which certainly can – and does – serve as a civilizing and moral force in many places around the world. But in an age when Western eyes are so continuously directed at the dangers of fundamentalism within Islam, it is worth remembering that Christians and Jews, Americans and Israelis have to pay careful attention to their own religious fanatics as well.
I wish “Godspeed” for the recovery efforts in Haiti and a Shabbat Shalom for all.