After the Fires: When Blame is Not a Game

Now that the horrific fire in Israel’s Carmel forest has been extinguished and Israel has buried its dead, Israeli politicians and pundits have begun the inevitable process of assessing blame for this unprecedented tragedy. I have heard many referring to it as the “blame game,” as if this can be treated like just another episode in which an oversight or omission on the part of some careless government functionary caused a blackout, or a monumental traffic jam. Find the most likely suspect, the reasoning goes, hang him/her out to dry, and go on with your lives. People have a short attention span, right?

I am obliged to differ. The nature and scope of this tragedy, the suffering that it has caused and the degradation of Israel’s precious little forested land, demand an official heshbon hanefesh for how this could have happened. And, of course, it equally demands the staunch resolve to insure that it doesn’t happen again.

The most obvious place to look first is in Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, responsible for fire fighting infrastructure and manpower in the country. The titular head of that Ministry, Eli Yishai of the Shas party, has a lot of explaining to do, to understate the case dramatically.

While Shas has successfully maneuvered within Israel’s political system to funnel millions upon millions of government budgetary shekels to its yeshivas and ancillary programs, Yishai, who received his government position as a political trophy, has obviously not been paying as much attention to Israel’s vital national interests as he has to his own constituency.

That doesn’t make him unique; it makes him a politician. He will have to answer to the Israeli public, and I hope and trust that the questions will come fast and furious.

And then, of course, there is the question of why a country with as robust an economy as Israel is happy to receive contributions from Diaspora Jews for basic services like fire-fighting equipment. J. J. Goldberg has raised this question eloquently this week, and the question is spot on.

But setting aside for the moment the issue of the abject failure of the Ministry of the Interior and its head, and the need to ask others to provide what Israel should be providing for itself, there is still, as I see it, a larger and even more disturbing question that screams for an answer. How can it be that Israel- regardless of who’s minding the Ministry of the Interior’s business- allowed itself, at this point in its history, to be without adequate equipment to fight a fire like this one?

During the Second Lebanon War just a few years ago, thousands of Katyushas and other missiles fired from Lebanon fell on the Haifa area, turning it into a war zone. The Israeli homeland was under serious attack in a manner far more serious than it had been during the Scud missile attacks from Iraq during the first Gulf War.

That war took place during the summer. Rain was not falling. The earth was parched. And these thousands of missiles were falling in almost the exact same area as this recent fire in the Carmel forest.

It was an extraordinary miracle that no major forest fires erupted as a result of that missile barrage. Houses were destroyed, people were killed and wounded, but there were no catastrophic forest fires, despite the dry summer season and the area of the bombardment.

Amazing luck! For all that trauma that that war caused, all the havoc in Israel that it wreaked, forest fires were not a significant problem.

Israel is more than concerned – and rightly so – about the re-arming of Hezbollah by Syria and Iran, with missiles more advanced and more deadly than the ones used a few years ago.

But is it possible that in preparing to defend herself against such wars and attacks in the future, she would not have seriously considered the threat of fires?

What happened this past week was during peacetime, probably the result of the carelessness of a few kids. Israel can ill afford to rely on dumb luck the next time hostilities erupt with Hezbollah, and you can bet the bank that Hezbollah took note of the events of the past week. A few well placed missiles…

There is no “blame game” to be played right now – only serious assessment of what was a terrible catastrophe for Israel, and thought as to how to prevent it. Time is short.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.