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Light as well as heat: Learning lessons from the fires

Silver linings have emerged from the dry weather and the arson across Israel -- including the need to pray for rain
Israelis drive past a fire raging through the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israelis drive past a fire raging through the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)

As the last “active sites” of fire are extinguished around the country (and praying that there be no new ones between now and the promised rain on Thursday), here are six lessons learned from the week that just passed:

1. There is no doubt that many of the fires were deliberately lit by arsonists. However, a large number were not. When we convince ourselves that these tragedies were all the work of a monolithic “them,” we fail to learn from our mistakes and correct them. Further, by assuming the role of victim, we dis-empower ourselves. We all have the responsibility to take extreme precautions when handling fire, especially in extreme weather situations. Which brings us to…

2. As the regional climate shifts, rainfall patterns may continue to change. Each year, we see less rain in the north, with the rains starting later than expected. Drought has already destroyed much of the region’s agriculture, spurring economic crisis, and leading to the disintegration of the regional order. This means that ecological issues have now become strategic issues, and need to be seen as such by our national leaders.

3. This holds true at the local level as well. Community defense organizations must add fire to the threats that they routinely guard against. At times of sharav and strong east winds, the civil guard or community security officer should institute routine fire-watch patrols. Local fire-departments should set up training sessions for homeowners and all homes should be equipped with fire extinguishers by law.

4. But let us also remember the good: despite the fact that hundreds of homes were lost and thousands of others damaged, and despite the fact that fires were burning at multiple locations, many in densely-populated areas, to date not a single human life was lost! This is no small testament to the planning and coordination of community councils, first responders, hospitals, and rescue services. Meanwhile, all across Israel, Jews, Druze, and Arabs opened their homes, their wallets, and their hearts to those who lost everything. Neighbors who had not been evacuated did what they could to safeguard the property of those who had to leave. A message on a “buy and swap” group suggested: “Whatever you have to sell, donate it instead to those who need it.” Google docs sprouted up online matching evacuees with hosts. While we must take responsibility for human negligence in some of these fires, we should also be thankful for the solidarity, compassion, and quick response of so many of Israel’s citizens, without which the results would have been even more tragic.

5. While we often feel alone and isolated from a world that seems increasingly hostile, we must not forget that when push came to shove, good people from beyond our borders stepped in to help. Firefighters and planes came even from countries as far away as Russia and the US and from countries with whom our relationship is not easy, such as Turkey. Some of those who sent help are rhetorically hostile to our very existence. And yet, actions really do speak louder than words, at least at times like these.

6. And lastly, I can’t help but think back on a discussion last year on Facebook. We were congratulating ourselves on having beaten the drought through extensive water reclamation and desalination. At that time, I had just finished learning Masekhet Ta’anit, a tractate of the Talmud dealing with responses to drought. The question was raised: Do we still need to pray for rain — and fast when it doesn’t come?” I think we now know the answer to that. We are not as independent nor as in control of our situation as we might like to think. It’s well to remember that.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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