Some things seem too silly to respond to – and then you think about them a bit, and realize that it is worth making the obvious points, if only to illuminate what appears to lie behind the silliness.
Such a thing is Jeff Goldberg’s exhortation this week at his Atlantic blog. (H/t Joshuapundit and Israel Matzav.) Without prelude or caveat, Goldberg announces that no one should give to the Jewish National Fund’s relief drive for the Carmel forest fire, which has killed 41 people and destroyed trees and homes. His reasoning is that Israel has plenty of money, and it’s absurd for foreigners to donate so new trees can be planted, lost homes and facilities rebuilt, and firefighting equipment purchased. Israel should just pay for that herself. Might give the Israelis something better to spend public money on than all that military hardware.
One is, as I say, tempted to simply dismiss this and forget it. But it’s arresting, when you think about it, what bizarre things people triangulate themselves into saying when they are talking about Israel. What’s at issue here, after all, is a legitimate humanitarian relief effort. Goldberg’s crude politicization of it goes beyond criticizing the concept: he is actively urging others not to donate to it. Motives of compassion, humanity, and Zionism should, in his view, be suspended in favor of standing back and letting Israel – what? Stew in her own juices? Learn her lesson? Face public funding constraints that force her to choose between fighting fires and fighting terrorists?
Urging people not to give to a legitimate humanitarian fund, in the wake of a devastating disaster, is not exactly a moral commonplace. Most commentators aren’t anxious to seem that hardhearted and meanly political. I’m willing to bet Goldberg has never urged people not to donate to funds for “Palestinian relief” or “Gazan relief.” A perfectly legitimate case can be made that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have plenty of money, and that they regularly spend the great majority of it in undesirable ways (e.g., lining the pockets of those in their senior ranks and funding terrorism). By Goldberg’s criteria, foreigners should be urged not to make private relief donations until Abbas, Fayyad, Haniyeh, and company have gotten their priorities in order. I suspect we’ll wait in vain, however, to hear Goldberg make that point.
It’s an odd and very particular thing, this business of seeing Israeli Jews in human distress and thinking, “Now’s the time to make a point with them about their national policies!” It doesn’t seem to apply to anyone but the Jews and Israel. To other disaster victims, the ordinary moral code applies. Got feelings of compassion, concern, a desire to help? Go with it. But for the Jews, a checklist: have they reordered their nation’s political priorities to your liking yet?
There’s nothing wrong with vetting relief organizations to ensure our donations don’t wind up being used for purposes we don’t approve. But that’s not Goldberg’s thrust here. He really is talking about withholding aid out of political considerations.
I note also that his case falls apart on examination. It’s not like the citizens of other well-off nations with critiquable policies never need disaster relief. Middle-class Americans and Europeans have received enormous amounts of help from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army over the last decade, after fires, floods, tornadoes, volcanoes, epic freezes, and hurricanes. Jeff Goldberg may not live in them, but there are also large sections of the Western US that are underserved in terms of firefighting readiness. We, like the Israelis, learn from the worst fire disasters that we didn’t have enough equipment or a good enough plan.
We are far from perfect in our own provisions for catastrophe. We are ambivalent about how much liability homeowners and private businesses should be stuck with. Our governments are alternately zealous and improvident about preparing for the next disaster. We are grateful for private donations and public monies that make it possible to rebuild and reforest, but we often don’t like it when they come with strings. In short, we are human.
The one thing we are not ambivalent about is whether those who are suffering – who have lost everything, who have no place to sleep, who need a helping hand for a new start – should be given assistance. We are not ambivalent about helping to restore the lives and the land that make us whole. To the question whether compassion, charity, and a vision for renewal are the right responses to devastating events – whether they are appropriate, honest, to be recommended and aspired to; whether they are good – our answer would be: Of course.
How very strange, then, to look at the Jews of Israel and see it differently.