view from central park

Bad fires, good people


As we all watched in horror as the fires spread across Israel, we were also grateful that no life was taken.

This story, in which people lost their homes, an artist’s life’s work of 40 years went up in flames, and people ran for their lives, has been largely absent from the general media. Its glaring omission speaks volumes.

After learning of the arson behind many of the fires, probably the greatest arson terrorist attack in history, it was hard for me to find appreciation in my heart for the PA firefighters who came and helped.

The metaphor of Solomon’s justice was put forward by many. Just as King Solomon identified a baby’s authentic mother by her refusal to have the baby hurt — even to the point of giving the child up as long as it remained intact — similarly, the thought went, does the burning of the land prove or rather disprove the Palestinians claim of ownership to the land of Israel. You simply don’t burn your own home.

I nodded approvingly at the thought of this biblical metaphor, a metaphor I used in this column a number of years ago to make a similar point.

At the news of the PA sending in help, I thought to myself: Incite people to violence, incite people to knifings, incite people to burning the land, and then we’re supposed to be feel grateful when the PA sends in help to put out the disaster they indirectly had a hand in creating?

These were my very initial reactions.

But then I heard of all the Arab villages and villagers — not official PA representatives with possibly cynical public relations motives, but ordinary people who opened their homes to strangers in their hour of need. Villages near the famously mixed Jewish-Christian-Muslim city of Haifa. And most notably, the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, just outside of Jerusalem. Then I thought differently.

We can all plan and lock away our copies of documents protected by computer software. But at the end of the day, we are all still just people, vulnerable to the elements of nature. Personally, I am old school. Most of my notes, recipes, drafts and thoughts are handwritten. I am one of those who could lose everything in a fire.

And when so many people did, others came out to help bind the wounds of those in need.

The outpouring was so great that the Haifa municipality instructed the public: No more donations. The municipality was overflowing with electrical appliances, clothes and furniture.

There’s still the West Bank Jewish communities of Neve Tsuf and Talmon, and Beit Meir, near Jerusalem, that need help. Some people will literally need to start over from scratch.

Ynet reported on a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, Abigail Ben Nun, who fled Belgium on the cusp of WW II: “She returned to her home in Halamish to discover that it had been incinerated in one of the fires investigators say was started by arsonists. ‘My goodness. All my money and success, my pictures and notes from my mother — everything gone. But at least we are alive’.”

Israeli photographers are volunteering their services to photograph families and help them start collecting family portraits and memories anew. A organization called MOED is focusing on collecting donations, specifically warm blankets for the now tens of thousands in need of new ones just as winter is upon us.

In our day-to-day lives, when we think of fire, we think of warmth, of cooking, of comfort, of glowing Shabbat candles and spreading light. But of course fire can also be a destructive force. Around this same time several years ago, Carmel — a place of strong biblical associations with Elijah’s fires, as well as his fiery personality — lost so many trees to the fires.

The terrorist element of these fires is obviously very serious. They must be addressed for the heinous acts they are. But within this terrible attack, let us also not look away from the good people, the “anashim tovim be-emtsa ha-derech,” as Naomi Shemer wrote, who came out and helped.

In that spirit, I humbly suggest that on the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shevat, next Feb. 11, perhaps some of these good Palestinian people who helped out can join Israelis in planting new trees in the soil of the land of Israel, as is customary on this holiday.

Granted, Tu b’Shevat is a Jewish holiday. But perhaps this gesture can symbolically serve to repair the tremendously painful damage that has been incurred.