January 22, 2010
A week after the earthquake in Haiti, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the estimated number of dead in the disaster is between 100,000 and 200,000. The good news is that one of the members of the Israeli mission, Shmuelik (“Shmil”) Shufel, has a new granddaughter of 2.6 kilograms. No, she doesn’t have a name yet. Thanks for asking.The joy in the Israeli camp is not infecting the residents of the wretched island – or what’s left of it – and that too is quickly dying. And there’s a reason for this: not only is there death and destruction wherever you look, but a case of diarrhea, discovered in our mission, is seriously holding up efforts to rehabilitate the island. Yes, while the whole world is rallying in its clumsy, ponderous way to “help” devastated Haiti, the Israeli mission is doing its work with the same determination that has given Israel an international reputation. We cannot but recall Operation Cast Lead and the Second Lebanon War: in Haiti, too, one treads amid ruins; here too the locals run to you crying and begging and with arms outstretched, here too it is hard to describe in words the scale of the destruction and distress, here too one is embedded in an IDF spokesman’s pool, here too the locals are stunned to see you. The difference is that here you are not condemned and slandered. Is that only because they don’t recognize us, despite the huge signs and the flags we have hoisted? We are on what was once the main street. Stumbling toward us is an old man, crying, beating his chest, mumbling in an incomprehensible language and apparently pointing to the UN forces camp, which is hidden behind a destroyed building. We do not understand his language, but we can guess what he wants to say: “Just look at this UN! All they know how to do is talk nice, send commissions of inquiry and issue condemnations against countries that are doing battle against terrorism – but when it comes to the nitty-gritty on the ground, the UN is revealed in all its impotence!” We can only nod in agreement. We offer the old man water, even though we did not succeed in training him, not even with a Bamba snack, to say, “Toda, and boker tov, Yisrael.” Shouts are heard from a house. We approach cautiously – it could be an ambush – and see a black man of middle age lying under a concrete beam and groaning loudly. Shmuelik says he has a feeling the man is a Jew. How? By his watch: an unconvincing Rolex replica. Great excitement seizes the mission. “Ivrit? Ivrit?” we shout. The man goes on groaning and moaning. We try again: “Hebrew? Hibrea?” But the man closes his eyes and crosses himself. Yehoyachin (“Fush”) Noch-Shlefer, a division commander in Zaka, conjectures that maybe the man is a descendant of the Marranos in Spain. His forefathers, who were obviously learned in the Torah, fled from Seville to Toledo and from there to Portugal, and it’s definitely possible that one of them, or at least someone in the family, found himself on Columbus’s ship the “Santa Maria,” as an interpreter and barber. The ship, as everyone knows, foundered off the islands of Hispaniola, which include today’s Haiti. Thanks to his prayers he was vouchsafed a miracle and was spared the fate of his comrades, who were left at the site and massacred by the locals. It is very possible that the man under the concrete beam is a direct descendant of his, the product of decades of mixed marriages with mulatto women who converted to Judaism. And he doesn’t even know that he’s one of ours. “Hispana?” we try, “Maimonides?” The man groans. Maybe with choked-up joy. The excitement chokes us up, too, and the team starts to dig around him, plays him a Yehoram Gaon song and updates him about Gilad Shalit. But our mission does not have the right equipment to raise the beams – in contrast to the other missions, which have the right equipment but don’t have our genius. Some of us wonder why these phlegmatic Americans can’t pitch in and lend us, say, an aircraft carrier. If we had that, we could save the whole island for sure. Nevertheless, we dig on, and the man, or at least his upper half, which is immediately given the name Netanel, is saved. Will he make aliyah? “Water,” he whispers. Look at that, he’s already being evasive, the Galitsyaner. The chaos we find in this would-be state is beyond belief. The prime minister is a perspiring incompetent who isn’t capable of deciding anything; the local government is corrupt and every week another mayor is arrested; the gap between rich and poor is appalling; the leaders of the government live in magnificent villas or luxury towers, whereas the level of ordinary construction is less than substandard and is cluttered with drainage pipes, air conditioners and rusting boilers; and murder is an almost daily occurrence. This wannabe state, which is borderless and has never managed to live even a day of peace, is effectively ruled by two forces – the generals and the clerics – and the boundaries between them are often blurred. The voodoo beliefs here attribute magic powers to rocky slopes, stones and graves, not to mention certain words and gestures. For example, they believe in their ability to burn the consciousness of their enemies or to vanquish their adversaries by making them sit on a lower chair. There are tales of zombies thousands of years old that rise up at night and demand ownership of houses they claim belong to them. We recall Graham Greene’s somewhat prophetic novel “The Comedians” and the film that was based on it: the alienated poseurs who found themselves in Haiti during the period of the Duvalier regime; the members of the terrifying secret guard known as the Tonton Macoutes, with the impenetrable shades that were their uniform and trademark; that “poor Haiti [which is] not invented – not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night,” as Greene put it. Well, it turns out to be possible. We hope, at least, that we have brought with us a ray of light, enlightenment and morality from a faroff land. Yes, the inhabitants know, or should know, that without the Israelis (or “Americanos,” in the local dialect) they have no one to rely on at the moment. This fills the heart – ours, anyway – with pride. Too bad there has to be such a sad event in order to invoke, when all is said and done, our high morality. “Angels in blue and white,” we call ourselves, and this bit of self-indulgence brings tears of emotion to our eyes every time. “Thank you,” we whisper to us and kiss our hand, “thank you for existing.” But will anyone remember? Will anyone chalk up points for our side? Where are you now, Mr. Goldstone? Don’t we deserve to have most of the items in your report erased? Toward evening, the Israeli field hospital prepares for a circumcision ceremony: for Reb Netanel (when all of him is collected), for 10 orphans and, some say, for the president of Haiti himself. By the way, would you believe that his aunt on his mother’s side was a commando in the Palmach?