Israeli Relief Work in Haiti—Volunteerism as a National Resource

Israeli Relief Work in Haiti—Volunteerism as a National Resource

In the midst of so much heartbreaking news out of Haiti, there is modest consolation for Israelis in reports about their country's relief efforts. The army sent a field hospital. Civil society—including the IsrAID coalition, to which AJC has given $110,000 to date—sent rescue and medical teams. Through this assistance, babies were safely born (one even named "Israel"); victims were rescued from beneath collapsed buildings; broken limbs were set; and ongoing medical care was provided.
Perhaps it was inevitable that positive news would attract coverage from the "lest-we-think-too-well-of-the-Israelis" types. For example, note the recent New York Times story that gives the last word to the thought that somehow this places in bold relief Israel's alleged mistreatment of the residents of Gaza.

This isn't just a gratuitous slap in the face of a great deal of goodness done by the IDF and Israeli volunteers in Haiti. More significant is how it so interestingly fits the pattern of virtually ignoring one of the most important components of Israel's story—the largely untold account of Israeli voluntarism.

Here are a few numbers: The Israeli police force consists of some 25,000–30,000 professional officers in a population of about seven and half million. Charged with all the usual police duties as well as helping to combat the terror threat, the professional police are stretched thin. They depend on the volunteer efforts of some 70,000 unpaid Israeli civilians, who, in their spare time, fill duties like traffic control and routine patrolling, and sometimes even perform elite roles like special search- and-rescue and bicycle-patrol duties. The next time you visit Israel, take a look at the middle-aged person in the ill-fitting uniform directing traffic or patrolling next to an elementary school. Doesn't look like a professional cop? Chances are he or she indeed isn't.

In addition to those police volunteers, writes Professor Yosef Katan, there are some 24,000 non-governmental volunteer organizations. Their members staff soup kitchens, teach Hebrew or foreign languages, work with the physically and developmentally challenged, assist hospital patients, do fund-raising for nonprofits, assist new immigrants in their early years in the country, support workers' rights, act on behalf of human rights, protect animals from abuse—and the list goes on.

In short, there is barely a social service or form of art or culture in Israel that is not regularly staffed by very large numbers of volunteers. How many? The Foreign Ministry website suggests about one and a half million, 20% of the population. Former MK Esther Herlitz, a highly regarded authority (and an old friend of AJC) estimates an even higher figure, two and a half million, a third of the population. And these numbers do not include the men and women who show up each year for reserve duty in the IDF. Pointing to another of those interesting similarities between the two societies, a 2008 study of American volunteering finds that about 26% of Americans contribute their time and effort each year.

Voluntarism is an important strategic asset. Despite Israel's famously cantankerous public life, the high levels of voluntarism indicate what the social scientists call "social capital," the day-to-day strength and resilience that Israel's enemies so often miss. Hizbullah's Nasrallah erred badly when he planned the notorious cross-border kidnapping of Israeli troops that launched the 2006 war, going on the assumption that Israeli society was, as he put it, "weaker than a spider web."

Israel's generals will be the first to tell you that the effective response to the terror assault was based on the social cohesion that comes with decades of high levels of volunteering in Israeli society. Thus Israel's intifada heroes were the stoic bus drivers of Jerusalem and the volunteer medics who rode quickly toward explosions on their medically equipped motor scooters. The results of volunteerism were seen in the way Israeli civil society stepped to the plate in 2006 to deal with the 300,000 internally displaced persons driven from their homes and the hundreds of thousands stuck in shelters in the bombarded North—a triumph of the Israeli spirit in which, I am proud to say, AJC played an active role.

The results of Israeli relief work in Haiti are indeed heartwarming, but if we are to have a deeper understanding of the strategic dynamics in Israel's own region, we must stress that there is nothing new about these volunteers. They form one of Israeli society's permanent sources of strength.