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Israeli aid effort helps Haitians — and Israel’s image

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Members of the IsraAid medical team offered treatment on Monday to earthquake survivors at a soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The text messages started coming in to Shachar Zahavi’s cell phone in the middle of the night: “What are we going to do about Haiti?”

Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid, a coordinating organization for 17 Israeli and Jewish humanitarian groups, hadn’t even heard yet about the earthquake that had rocked Port-au-Prince, leaving untold thousands dead.

By morning, preparations already were under way to dispatch an Israeli relief team to the devastated Caribbean nation. Consisting of doctors, nurses, paramedics, and logistics experts, the 15-person group arrived Saturday in Port-au-Prince and immediately set to work treating wounded Haitians at the site of a collapsed hospital near the city center.

On Monday, deep into the thick of coordinating logistics for a second aid team to replace the first, Zahavi received a heartening text message from one of his team members in Haiti: “A 6-year-old girl, Jessica Hartelin, was just pulled from the rubble by locals nearly six days after the earthquake, was rushed to our clinic, and treated by the IsraAID/FIRST medical team. She was saved. She will be transferred in the next few minutes to the Israeli Defense Force field hospital for further treatment.”

It was one bright spot in a week that aid workers described as alternately heartbreaking and exhilarating.

The IsraAid team, composed fully of volunteers, was just one component of the broad Israeli and Jewish effort to help Haiti. As soon as the magnitude of the earthquake’s destruction became apparent, humanitarian officials sprang into action.

The Israel Defense Forces was the first major Israeli team to arrive. Team members reached Haiti last Friday on a flight loaded with military and civilian medical personnel from all over Israel, rescue teams, search dogs, and supplies. While Port-au-Prince’s hospitals were rendered mostly useless by the quake, the IDF team set up a field hospital near a soccer stadium to treat survivors. It was one of the only places Haitians could receive advanced medical treatment in the city.

“The Israeli field hospital is phenomenal,” Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News told “Good Morning America.” “They were up and running on Saturday morning, way ahead of the United States hospital.”

When Besser encountered a woman in labor named Soraya in a Port-au-Prince park, he got in touch with the only medical facility he knew about in town: the one run by the Israelis.

“Before long, Soraya had an operating room waiting for her,” said Besser, who helped deliver the baby. “Ultrasounds, IVs, medications. Soraya was now getting better care than she could have ever imagined.”

On Saturday, Israeli doctors at the hospital delivered a baby boy whose grateful mother said she’d name the boy Israel.

Meanwhile, other civilian aid workers were having trouble getting into Haiti. Power was down in most of Port-au-Prince, complicating matters, and airplanes on the ground at the city’s airport lacked sufficient fuel to take off and make way for additional aid flights to land.

The airport in Santo Domingo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, became an alternate staging area, and aid officials from around the world converged on the Dominican capital as a first step toward reaching the earthquake zone in Port-au-Prince.

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A 6-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble and treated by the IsraAID team in Port-au-Prince on Moonday. IsraAid

In Israel late last week, frustrated aid workers idled as they waited for a clear route into Haiti to be established. Reached by telephone last Friday, an official from Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, said the group still hadn’t received clearance to leave.

It took until Monday for the team of five Magen David Adom paramedics to get to Port-au-Prince, which they reached overland after landing in the Dominican Republic. Once in Haiti, the paramedics set up a field hospital in conjunction with the Norwegian Red Cross at the courtyard of the university hospital in Port-au-Prince. The hospital was up and running Tuesday morning.

A group from the Israeli disaster relief organization ZAKA was in a better position to move quickly. ZAKA had a team of rescue workers in Mexico assisting in recovery efforts following a helicopter crash there two days before the quake hit, so when the official Mexican aid delegation to Haiti left Mexico, Israeli rescue workers hitched a ride with them aboard a Mexican Air Force Hercules aircraft.

Before the week was over, ZAKA rescue workers had pulled eight students, alive, from the wreckage of a collapsed university building.

In a statement, the head of the delegation, Mati Goldstein, was quoted in an e-mail describing a “Shabbat from hell” in the earthquake-ravaged city. ZAKA is made up of Orthodox Jewish volunteers.

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An Israeli and others carry a wounded Haitian to a field hospital on Monday set up by the Israeli army in Port-au-Prince. Zaka/Flash90/JTA

“Everywhere, the acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air. It’s just like the stories we are told of the Holocaust — thousands of bodies everywhere,” Goldstein wrote. “You have to understand that the situation is true madness, and the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped. It is beyond comprehension.”

To lift their spirits, the rescue workers from ZAKA taught Haitian survivors to sing “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem.”

Whether clad in IDF uniforms, wearing the flag of Israel on their shoulders, or holding Shabbat prayers during a brief break from their rescue work, the Israeli aid workers’ visible presence in Haiti is helping to promote a positive image of Israel in a world more accustomed to seeing the nation negatively.

“I am sure it is good for the Israeli image, but we’re not doing it only because of this,” said Danny Biran, ambassador of logistical and administrative affairs for Israel’s mission to the United Nations and the Americas. “We are doing it because we believe in what we are doing.”

“We always carry an Israeli flag and hang it wherever we work. We don’t do anything under the radar,” said Zahavi of IsraAid. “It’s important for us to show that we come on behalf of the Israeli people, and people should know we’re there for them.”

The IsraAid coalition is made up of aid organizations — such as the Fast Israeli Rescue and Search Team (FIRST), the Jerusalem AIDS Project, and Pirchey Refua-Israeli Youth Medical Cadets — as well as funding organizations including the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rtih International, and UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto.

In an interview from Port-au-Prince, one of IsraAid’s logistics volunteers, Alan Schneider, director of the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, said the destruction in Haiti was overwhelming.

“I’ve been to Chad, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Kenya, and Georgia on IsraAid missions, and I’ve never ever seen anything of this scale,” Schnieder said by telephone as patients receiving treatment at IsraAid’s clinic could be heard screaming in the background. “It’s like a war scene.”

JTA

 
 

Japan disaster and Itamar killings put Jewish giving on the spot

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An aerial view of debris from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan on March 11. Alexander Tidd/U.S. Navy

Almost as soon as the catastrophe in Japan began unfolding last Friday, Jewish groups scrambled to figure out how to get help to the area.

In Israel, search-and-rescue organizations like ZAKA and IsraAid readied teams to head to the Japanese devastation zone. In Tokyo, the Chabad center took an accounting of local Jews and began organizing a shipment of aid to stricken cities to the north. In the United States, aid organizations ranging from B’nai B’rith International to local and national federation agencies launched campaigns to collect money for rescue, relief, and rebuilding efforts in the Pacific.

But then Shabbat came, and with it the news that a suspected Palestinian terrorist had brutally murdered five family members in the Jewish west bank settlement of Itamar, and the focus of the Jewish community seemed to shift.

“Not sure who to think about first,” Nadia Levene, a British-Israeli event-planner living in Jerusalem, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The devastated remaining members of the Fogel family from Itamar, Gilad Shalit — five years in Hamas captivity — or the survivors of the Japanese tragedy and the dangers they may be facing.”

The Orthodox Union, which sent out a message last Friday calling on supporters to donate to the organization’s newly established earthquake emergency fund, sent out another urgent message two days later calling on donors to give money to the OU’s victims of terrorism fund.

As of late Monday, the totals collected by each fund were running neck and neck, the OU’s chief operating officer, David Frankel, told JTA.

“We have an obligation to care for our own,” Frankel said, “but the enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would not only be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need,” he said, but also a missed opportunity to honor the memory of Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.

“The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need,” Frankel said. “We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”

By Tuesday, Israeli teams composed of rescue personnel, emergency medical officers, and water pollution specialists had reached the suburbs of Tokyo, and they were in contact with aid workers in the northern part of the country where the tsunami hit hardest, according to Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid.

Several American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish federation in Chicago and the American Jewish Committee, are funneling money to IsraAid for disaster relief in Japan.

In Tokyo, the Chabad center commissioned a bakery in Sendai, one of the cities battered by the tsunami, to bake bread for its residents and surrounding areas. The center also trucked several tons of food and supplies to Sendai, Chabad officials said. The officials estimated that Chabad’s relief in Japan is costing approximately $25,000 per day.

In the United States, Jewish humanitarian organizations reported that the money was coming in fast for mailboxes set up to receive donations for Japanese disaster relief.

“We are determined to provide emergency relief as quickly as possible and to work with our partners to provide support over the longer term as well,” said Fred Zimmerman, chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Emergency Committee.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the main overseas partner for the Jewish Federations, said it had collected more than $400,000 by midday Tuesday.

What makes the Japanese situation a unique challenge for Jewish humanitarian organizations is the absence of relationships in a country that traditionally has been an aid donor, not a recipient.

Indeed, when the American Jewish World Service, which led the Jewish aid response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, was asked what its aid effort would be for Japan, the answer was none at all because AJWS has no partners in the country, spokesman Joshua Berkman told JTA.

The JDC found itself in a similar situation.

“We had no programs in Japan prior to the earthquake; we just worked with the local Jewish community,” said Will Recant, an assistant executive vice president at JDC.

But almost immediately after the earthquake and tsunami hit, the JDC consulted with the Jewish community in Tokyo to identify local Japanese nongovernmental organizations working in the affected areas. By Tuesday, JDC had begun funneling money to JEN, a Tokyo-based organization specializing in shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable, and emergency supply distribution that had managed to send personnel to the ravaged Japanese prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima.

As with other disasters, Recant said JDC will stick around to help with long-term relief, budget allowing. Only money raised specifically for Japan will be spent on disaster relief. There is no money in JDC’s budget for additional nonsectarian, humanitarian work, Recant said.

While Japan continues to reel from the triple disaster of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami, and a subsequent nuclear crisis, experts in Israel are trying to figure out what lessons from Japan can be applied to the Jewish state, which lies on two fault lines, the Carmel fault and the Dead Sea fault.

Israel experiences tremors every so often, but the last time a ruinous earthquake struck the area was in 1927, when the west bank city of Nablus suffered serious damage. An 1837 earthquake destroyed much of the northern Israeli cities of Safed and Tiberias and left thousands dead.

Israeli building codes have been updated for better earthquake safety compliance, but regulations and enforcement still are said to lag behind places like California, which experiences larger and more frequent quakes.

“There’s still a lot that has to be done as far as building codes are concerned,” said Michael Lazar, a tectonics expert at the University of Haifa. “There’s an attempt to encourage people to renovate older buildings and make them earthquake-ready, but it really hasn’t caught on.”

A scenario in which Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev, would face the kind of meltdown scenario situation that Japan is seeing now is much less likely, Lazar said, because Dimona is far from the tectonic lines that cross Israel.

“But,” he cautioned, “it’s hard to tell how an earthquake would disperse.”

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has opened an emergency relief fund to provide aid and support to the victims of the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami and to help those in other potential disaster zones such as Hawaii and the U.S. mainland’s West Coast. To make a donation, go to http://www.ujannj.org.

Also visit .

JTA Wire Service

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report.

 
 

With new investments, Israel again is looking to Africa

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Solar panels made with Israeli technology are being installed at the Natan School in Nawansekese Village, Uganda, as part of a project sponsored by the organization Jewish Heart for Africa. Courtesy Jewish Heart for Africa

HERZLIYA, Israel – Soon after Israel itself was born, it began investing significant resources in development assistance in Africa.

Israel’s official development work there waned over the decades, but in recent years Africa again has become a target for Israeli development work by nonprofit organizations and corporations. Particularly in areas like water resource management, agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure, and telemedicine, experts say Israel has much to offer the developing continent.

“In the same way we are a high-tech power, we can become a development-tech power, because our problems are their problems and our expertise fits their needs,” said Aliza Belman Inbal of Tel Aviv University’s Hartog School of Government and Policy.

New thinking is beginning to take root that it is in Israel’s interest both economically and as a tool to boost its international standing to again look toward Africa.

“So many things we do are so relevant for these countries,” she said. “We have the capacity to help Africa in ways other countries cannot and to help build a positive agenda to show Israel can offer good to the world.”

Early Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir had dispatched agricultural and other experts across Africa in a policy that mixed altruism with the hope that newly independent African states might become staunch allies.

The burgeoning interest of Israeli humanitarians, businesspeople, and government officials in Africa can be seen in Israeli medical missions that have gone to the farthest reaches of war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and business pouring resources into developing Africa’s booming cellular phone market, which is the fastest growing in the world. Small nongovernmental organizations are getting involved, like Jewish Heart for Africa, which introduced Israeli solar technologies to produce electricity in orphanages, schools, and clinics in Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi.

“Israelis really do like to share their know-how, and we believe in helping build African communities,” said Shachar Zahavi, executive director of IsraAID, a consortium of Israeli and Jewish aid organizations that work in developing countries, including those like Japan and Haiti that require disaster assistance.

“We are seeing both a younger generation of Israelis who during their post-army travels want to do something meaningful with their time abroad seek out volunteering,” Zahavi said, “and at the same time we are seeing more and more companies looking to build and adapt their products for the developing world.”

On May 29, several hundred people gathered in Herzliya for an IsraAID-organized conference on Israeli involvement in Africa. Bob Geldof, the Irish rock singer who staged the 1985 Live Aid concert for famine relief in Africa and its 2005 counterpart advocating for debt relief, delivered the keynote address.

“It’s a great thing you are doing today because the world knows that this region is convulsed in its own problems,” Geldof said. In his speech, he urged Israel not to use the Israeli-Arab conflict as an excuse to refrain from engaging in the developing world.

“The Jewish people for centuries have used their intellect and culture to be open — that’s what you guys do,” said Geldof, who had a Jewish grandmother. “Do not be forced into turning away from the world.”

Israel’s development aid to Africa shrank to its current low levels following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when most African states severed ties with Israel. That ended a period in which Israel sent some 5,000 experts in agriculture, water management, and other fields throughout the developing world.

Mashav, the Israeli government agency responsible for aid programs, was one of the largest departments in the Foreign Ministry in the 1960s, but its budget has shrunk drastically. Today, Israel gives markedly less in overseas aid according to gross national income than most of its counterparts in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Israel has relatively little trade targeted toward Africa. In 2010, Israeli exports to Africa excluding diamonds reached $1.3 billion, as compared to $8.4 billion to Asia or $12.7 billion to the United States, according to Dan Catarivas, director of the foreign trade division of the Israeli Manufacturers Association.

But Africa’s potential as one of the world’s fastest growing economic areas is beginning to attract attention from Israeli and international firms.

A recent report by McKinsey, the international consulting firm, suggested that the future survival of global companies will depend on their ability to focus on what they term “innovation to win in low-cost, high-growth countries” like those found in Africa. According to McKinsey, in the next decade such emerging-market economies, now on the sidelines, will become central global economic players.

Signs of change are already here. There are many Israeli companies in Africa involved in building roads and hospitals and working in water management and medicine.

The Israeli irrigation company Netafim introduced low-pressure, low-cost drip irrigation systems for subsistence farmers, providing them with enough water to raise crops year round.

“We are a private company and our luck is that we are doing well by doing good by giving answers to problems like hunger,” said Naty Barak, head of sustainable development at Netafim.

In a Kenyan village called Kitui, Barak said that 200 poor, small-scale vegetable growers who adopted Netafim’s product saw a 140 percent increase of harvested yield and a 200 percent increase in income while saving about 60 percent of water resources. Previously, they had irrigated crops by hauling water from wells.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry also is becoming involved, inviting African business delegations to Israel to learn more about its industries, and twinning economic attachés at Israeli embassies in Africa with Israeli companies to help scope out opportunities.

“We are sending the message that it is good to do business with Africa,” Rafael Harpaz, director of the ministry’s economic department that deals with the Americas and Africa, told JTA. “There is potential to grow, and we are looking for new markets to trade with. If the Israeli economy is going to grow, it needs these new markets.”

To that end, the Foreign Trade Administration, a department within the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, is seeking new policies that will help harness Israel’s competitive advantage in the developing world, including Africa.

Jewish Heart for Africa said that bringing Israeli know-how to Africa is particularly attractive to its donor base of young American Jews.

“Young donors like our projects,” said Sivan Borowich Ya’ari, the organization’s founder and president, “because we are not only helping Africa but helping Israel by helping the Israeli economy and Israel’s image.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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