When a disastrous 7.8 magnitude earthquake recently struck southern Turkey and Syria, a number of countries sent search and rescue teams, medical personnel, and emergency supplies. Among the first to do so was Israel.

Israel’s rush to offer aid to those two countries may strike some as puzzling.  Syria has never recognized the State of Israel, and in fact considers itself in a state of war against it. Not surprisingly, the Syrian government quickly rejected Israel’s offer.

Israel’s relations with Turkey are more complicated. In 2011, following the Gaza flotilla incident, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador. In 2013, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan called Zionism “a crime against humanity.”  In 2018, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador again, this time following protests in Gaza over the U.S. opening of its embassy in Jerusalem. Relations have warmed considerably since then, and the two countries announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations last August. But Turkey continues to openly support Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel, and has hosted its delegations in 2019 and 2020.

Why does Israel rush to offer aid to countries whose policies are hostile to it?

Kenneth Roth, the virulently anti-Israel former executive director of Human Rights Watch, describes Israel’s aid policies as “rubble-washing,” designed to distract attention from its treatment of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

But in fact, Israel’s aid policies long predate the 1967 Six Day War, in which the nation acquired those territories.  The policies date back to 1953, when an earthquake hit the Ionian Islands of Greece, taking over a thousand lives. Israel was only five years old at the time, but its nascent Navy happened to be conducting ship exercises in the region. The sailors went ashore, helping survivors and providing medical equipment.

Five years later, following a visit by the then Foreign Minister Golda Meir to Africa, Israel officially adopted humanitarian aid as an integral part of its foreign policy. 

Since then, the country has accumulated a remarkable – and largely unheralded – record of assistance to countries afflicted by natural disasters. Israeli medical and rescue teams have aided victims in Mexico City, Armenia, Greece (again), India, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Columbia, Japan, the Philippines, Nepal, Brazil, Albania, and Honduras.  Israel’s recent assistance to Turkey marks  the third time it has sent aid to that country. Israeli rescue teams were sent to Izmit in 1999 and in Ercis in 2011, following  severe earthquake in those areas. Israel has even sent teams to the United States: to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to Miami following the collapse of the Surfside condo in 2021.

When Israel sends help, its assistance is not token. It is substantial.  Of the many nations that sent aid to Nepal in 2015 after its magnitude-7.8 earthquake, Israel’s team was second only to India’s in size.  

Israel’s offer to send humanitarian aid to hostile countries is also not unprecedented.  In 2003, Israel offered emergency aid to Iran, another country pledged to its destruction, after an earthquake in Bam killed more than 26,000 people. It made a similar offer to Iran in 2017. In 2020, it offered aid to Lebanon, after a gigantic explosion in the Port of Beirut killed hundreds and left 300,000 homeless. Each such offer was refused.

Why does Israel do it?

One theory holds that Israel’s policy of extending assistance to nations in need, even to hostile ones, is a practical way to enhance the nation’s image and strengthen its position in the world. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman described extending aid as “the most effective kind of diplomacy.”

But is it? Although host nations regularly express their gratitude, and Israel’s popular image sometimes rises, there is no evidence of any country changing its voting patterns at the UN or in regional forums as a result of Israeli aid. If the purpose underlying the policy of offering humanitarian assistance is diplomatic influence, then the policy must be judged a failure.

Another theory sees Israel’s policy as derived from Jewish ethics, specifically the Biblical injunction to serve as a “light” or model to the world. In the Book of Isaiah, the Lord declares: “I have called thee in righteousness, and have taken hold of thy hand, and kept thee, and set thee for a covenant of the people for a light of the nations.” Under this view, Israel is obliged to help its afflicted neighbors even if it receives no benefit in return.

Of course, the two theories are not mutually exclusive.  A policy may be practical and ethical at the same time. As Yigal Palmor, a former spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, put it:  “If you do something good it’s not cynical to expect favorable media coverage.”  

But there is yet another possible explanation, one that has nothing to do with Jewish ethics or international diplomacy. It is an explanation based on the morale and self-esteem of the Israeli people themselves.

Though many nations have suffered over the ages, and many are suffering today, Israel occupies a unique status. It is the only nation whose destruction is regularly called for by other members of the UN, members who know they may make such reckless proclamations without adverse consequences. It is the only nation whose choice as to where to locate its own capital is widely disregarded by other nations, who blithely ignore their host and place their embassies elsewhere. Many other examples of such routine, daily demonization could be cited.

Taken together, these elements might well leave Israelis feeling self-doubt, insecurity, and despair. That is why practicing a policy of helping the world is so important to the morale of Israel’s people.  It shields them from the demoralizing effects of international ostracism. Amidst the shunning, their benevolence allows Israelis to feel pride in themselves and in their country.

And so Israel’s policy of sending search and rescue teams to earthquake-stricken lands abroad ultimately serves to rescue Israelis at home.


Filed under Foreign Policy

3 responses to “WHY ISRAEL HELPS

  1. avatar910

    Israel’s offers if aid should be welcomed, people over politics. It’s interesting, however, that the media doesn’t point out the lack of significant assistance from Russia or China to many of the catastrophes which strike around the world. [See, e.g. the USA’s contribution to humanitarian efforts after the 2004 Tsunami vs. that of Russia (~$2.8 Bn. vs. $2.0 M or China ~$146 M).]

  2. Jim Greenan

    Glad to know this.. How are you enjoying retirement. I bet you still get up easily and go for a run. I visited my hospice patients today. Trying to stay useful. Let me know if you are engaged in anything that I might get involved with. Say hello to Patty for me. Jim

  3. Jonathan

    You can help with Israel’s efficient, effective charitable activities: IsraAid https://www.israaid.org/ is my favored charity. See also https://www.charitynavigator.org/ein/462118225

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