JERUSALEM — For once, the main topic of discussion in Israel has no connection to war, politics or even the Middle East. From huge newspaper headlines to private conversations in small towns, Israelis can't get enough information about the tragedy crushing Haiti.
Israelis seem determined to do all they can to help the inhabitants of a frail nation thousands of miles away, people with no connection to Israel other than the fact that they both have a history of suffering. Watching the Israeli response — one of the fastest, most effective of any country on Earth — it is striking to see the enormous gap between the grotesque image of Israel woven by its enemies and the reality of the country's character.
Israelis are not saints. The country has made mistakes and its actions are legitimate subject for debate. In fact, nations that face armed conflict put their morality on the line every time they fight. But there is honest criticism that recognizes the country's difficult position, and there is vicious slander aimed at reaching malicious propaganda goals.
Israel's enemies have succeeded in drawing a monstrous image. They have painted a nation of blood-thirsty, amoral beings -- an ugly caricature seeking to delegitimize the country. Sadly, this image has taken hold in much of the world, with the ultimate result of pushing away the chances for peace and reconciliation. Supposedly unbiased reports that accuse Israel of deliberately trying to kill Palestinian children; television programs that show Israelis as baby snatchers and organ traders, all of these fit in with the libels that have plagued the Jewish people across the centuries.
A more subtle version of the same approach ignores the life-and-death risks Israel faces with each step it takes towards the creation of a Palestinian state.
Again, this is not to say that Israel cannot be criticized. In fact, nobody challenges Israel more energetically than Israelis. The country engages in anguished introspection. Its armed forces enlist ethicists and philosophers. Its political, social and religious leaders constantly discuss the ethically appropriate response to enemies who operate inside a baffling framework of morality -- encouraging their supporters to blow themselves up among civilians and promoting an ideology that openly declares their intention to destroy the state of Israel.
As I write, another rocket launched from Gaza has fallen inside Israel; another failed effort to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible. Israel's critics will ignore this attack, as they usually do. They will ignore Israel's restraint, but if the escalation ultimately leads to a response, they will fulminate against Israel's efforts to stop its attackers and they will ignore it in discussing the tough question of the Gaza blockade. What would critics do if their own civilians were subjected to thousands of rocket attacks? What if their enemies hid their command posts in hospitals and schools? To some the answer would be easy. In Israel the question sometimes threatens to tear the country apart.
The dilemma is an old one. More than 40 years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir predicted, "One day, we will forgive our enemies for killing our children, but it will be harder to forgive them for having forced us to kill theirs."
When facing a natural disaster, the dilemma is easily resolved: You do what you can to help. Within moments of the quake, Israelis were on their way to Haiti, as they have in countless other disasters around the world. In eight hours they raised a state-of-the-art field hospital.
One week later, scores of Israeli doctors were still performing life-saving operations at the only fully-functioning medical facility in Haiti.
Israeli rescuers, experienced at recovering the remains of terrorism and war victims, risked their lives crawling into unstable buildings to dig out desperate survivors. Crowds in Haiti chanted their thanks to Israel. A grateful mother named her new baby "Israel."
While the harshest critics of Israel's morality, the countries that have done their best to smear Israel, did not lift a finger to help Haiti. Israel, a land smaller than New Hampshire, sent hundreds of emergency workers, one of the largest contingents. When other countries started packing, Israeli said they will stay there at least another month.
Israel's demonizers will concoct sinister reasons for Israel's good deeds. You can count on that. Israel's response to Haiti's plight shows the country's true face -- a face its enemies don't want you to see.