The following piece below was written by Alex Shafran, a member of the Haifa Municipality as well as the Boston-Haifa Connection’s Young Leadership Committee and a student at the Israel Leadership Institute
Thursday, December 2nd, 2010, a terrible tragedy has descended upon Israel. As the scope of this tragedy continues to unfold, we are experiencing its universal ramifications. A tragedy we in Israel have not experienced since the birth of the state. Personally, I’m reliving the deep sense of sorrow I felt as a teenager, just a few days prior to my 15th birthday. The flashback to the She’ar Yeshuv Helicopter disaster, resulting in the death of 73 angels, some of Israel’s bravest and best, who lost their lives in the line of duty, during our country’s quest for peace and security.
In my capacity as a member of the Haifa Municipal Security Committee, I was one of the first to be notified about the fire in the Carmel Forest Reserve. Upon receiving the call to duty, I immediately made my way to the Municipal Command & Control Center (C3). Unfortunately, four years ago, during the Second Lebanon War, northern Israel and especially Haifa and its surroundings, suffered a vicious and unprecedented rocket attack. As a result of those tragic events, Haifa is now better prepared for almost any emergency scenario.
Later on during the day, the dimensions of the tragedy slowly started to unfold. The tragic news hit us with the force of a tsunami! 42 dead, most of them officer cadets, members of the Israel Prison Service, on their way to transport prisoners to a safe haven. Each left behind a family, close friends, loved ones and acquaintances. One of the critically wounded was Assistant Commissioner Ahuva Tomer, the Haifa Regional Police Commander. Ahuva, whom I personally knew, was an outstanding person, brave, dedicated and professional, whom I had always approached for advice whenever I needed it.
Immediately after receiving news of the fire, Ahuva drove out to the scene, and when she realized the danger facing the cadets, whose bus was driving straight into the inferno, she did not hesitate. During her attempt to save them and lead them out of the blazing fire, she was badly injured and suffered over 90% percent burns all over her body. This amazing woman, this fearless police officer, fought for her life, but she ultimately passed away.
Friday, early morning, in the command post, briefings and updates. An hour later, I make my way to the rescue teams’ staging grounds, adjacent to the University of Haifa. I meet exhausted firemen, I encounter the top echelon of the national police force, still shocked by the loss of Assistant Commissioner Ahuva and her top commanders, still missing in action. I observe the haggard faces of our HLS commanders, seemingly helpless in the face of the mounting tragedy. The skies are smoke-filled, the flames rage in the near distance and my beloved university is completely enveloped by darkness.
Since the early morning hours I’ve been carefully observing the arrival of our leading politicians. They have found a reason to leave Jerusalem, to drive up from Tel-Aviv, to be seen in the center of the decision making process. Perhaps they believe that by doing so, they will be able to shirk their responsibility. Maybe they think that by showing up in Haifa, they’ll be able to just shrug their shoulders. Do they really believe that this is an opportunity to shift the blame onto someone else’s desk. Do they have no part in the failure? Do they truly think that their failure to act in time, their failure to prepare for such events, their hesitation, their disregard and their apathy can be wiped away like drops of perspiration? The lame attempts to blame the previous government sound ridiculous and only serve to raise eyebrows, but now is not the time for recriminations.
I receive a telephone call from the town clerk, “Alex, I want you to be our representative at Eran Wiezel’s military funeral, do you think you can lay the wreath?”
“How can I refuse? “
During the long drive across town, I listen to the radio playing sad songs, normally overheard when tragedies descend upon us. I arrive at the military cemetery where hundreds of people have gathered to pay their respects. The cries of grief, the shock, the hysterical women accompany the coffin, carried beneath grey skies by heartbroken IPS officers.
I march alone, my steps heavy, following in the footsteps of pairs of uniformed officers, solemnly marching down the row of graves. The best of our sons and daughters. I never met Eran, may his soul rest in peace. Now I know all about him. The media, his family and his friends praise his passion for the job, his leadership qualities, his total commitment, his dedication. Eran served in the Ofek Incarceration Center, where he was in charge of the Talpiot program, instilling values in young offenders, his charges, teaching them that excellence is something they can achieve. Proving to his commanding officers and proving to us, his fellow citizens, that leaders can develop even within the confines of prison walls. May his memory be blessed.
On the way back my steps are even heavier, it’s a sad day for many. My thoughts wander, my mind is dull with pain, but I also realize that this people, my people, can stand together in difficult times. Why is it, I ask myself, that we are so adept at uniting in dire circumstances. Sixty-two years ago, in May of 1948, we established the State of Israel, but we have still yet to succeed in the construction of a strong and consolidated society. Difficult moments, like the ones we are experiencing these days, can add bricks to the complex mosaic that comprises our society and help us to lay the solid foundations needed for this country to become normal and successful. The potential is there, but we also need the dreams of our people, the aspirations, indeed a common desire to be shared by the majority of Israelis, regardless of political beliefs, a commitment without reservations.
It is elementary, I believe, to listen to your fellow citizen and to respect him or her. But sadly, as a people, we are not yet ready, we are too impatient, we are still immature. Unfortunately, I have reached the conclusion that our goals shall only be achieved the hard way, national tragedies notwithstanding.
One must start somewhere. It may be true that not too many people like to work hard; perhaps it’s true that we in Israel do not clutter our minds with impossible dreams, but we should remember that we are not alone in the belief that it can be done. No man is an island. We have no other choice. Like many of my friends, I personally wish to raise my children here. We have no other homeland.
Saturday morning. I’m sitting in the municipal C3, a pen in my hand, writing, conversing with you, conveying my thoughts to you, partially expressing a personal need to unburden the emotional baggage that has been with me since Thursday. Perhaps it is only an attempt to ignore the multiple screens around me, pouring forth a steady, never-ending stream of information.
How many times had I struggled to save a lonely stream from a landfill; how many Saturdays did I spend wandering around the Carmel National Park, the only UNESCO-recognized Israeli Biosphere Reserve; how many wonderful, fun-filled picnics have I enjoyed with my family near Kibbutz Beit Oren; but now, for the first time, as I sit in the C3, my mind is overwhelmed, my memories overpowered and I find myself, imagining how many other families could have been enjoying the beauty of this unusual parkland, during the Festival of Lights, during this cursed Hanukkah.
Yes, many mistakes were made, grave omissions and gross negligence to such an extent that perhaps even the state comptroller will find himself helpless in the face of such an investigation. A national commission, charged with unraveling the facts that led to this catastrophe, may find it almost impossible to do its job. But now is the time for unity, and it is important for us all to join hands and prove that although we have different views and we may come from various backgrounds, this tragedy should bring us together. The pain and sorrow should make us stronger, we cannot bow before this ecological disaster.
We must be strong, not indifferent, let us respect all the heroes, the rescue team members, the members of our security forces and all the others who did not hesitate when duty called. Blessed be their memory.
Alex Shafran is a Haifa Municipality Council Member & Boston-Haifa Connection Young Leadership Committee member, in addition to being a student at the Israel Leadership Institute.
Please join the Boston-Haifa Connection at the CJP Young Adults’ Emergency Fundraiser for Haifa Wildfires, this Thursday, December 9 from 6:30pm-9:30pm at FELT, 4th Floor (533 Washington Street, Boston)