Over the past week, fierce forest fires have devastated large swathes of Israel, killing 42 people – including the country’s most senior female police officer. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the emergency services needed all the help they could lay their hands on.
It is not hard to imagine the firefighters’ anger – and disbelief – on discovering that the country’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, had rejected an offer by a Christian charity in North America to donate some fire engines. Given that the country often struggles to provide adequate cover during such emergencies, the proposal by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews could have made a vital contribution to the attempts to bring the fires under control.
But Mr Yishai, who represents the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the ruling coalition, had other ideas. Shas, which speaks for Israel’s burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community, is deeply suspicious of non-Jewish organisations, even those that are committed to Israel’s well-being. Many of its supporters fear any help offered by Christian groups is part of some sinister plot to convert the Jews.
So Mr Yishai vetoed the American charity’s offer – and in doing so, further inflamed tensions between more secular-minded Israelis, who form the majority of the population, and the religious hardliners whose growing influence over government policy is a source of mounting friction between the communities. The anger only grew when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, publicly declared that the fires were divine retribution for the failure of secular Israelis to observe the Sabbath.[Via Secular Right]