Yonatan Yagodovsky, director of the international desk at Magen David Adom (MDA) in Israel, remembers exactly where he was when he first heard about the earthquake in Haiti. It was 6 a.m., and he was in the bathroom of his home in Jerusalem, shaving. He immediately called Ohad Shaked, the MDA’s specialist in earthquake preparedness, who rushed to the Situation Room in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where, by 8 a.m., a group of experts from the humanitarian group ZAKA, El Al airlines, the MDA, the Israel Defense Forces, the Foreign Ministry and the Health Ministry were meeting to plan Israel’s response to the disaster.
When Yagodovsky talks about the first 24 hours of the Israeli response, it’s with the quick cadence of machine-gun fire.
“It’s all about coordination and speed,” he told me over a lunch in Beverly Hills with representatives of MDA and the Israeli Consulate.
This coordination took place internally, within Israel, and externally, with groups like the United Nations and Red Cross. Most importantly, the Israeli mission needed an OK to land in Haiti from the U.S. Army, which was already working to secure the Haitian airport.
Within 24 hours, Yagodovsky told me, two El Al cargo planes were on their way to Haiti — one carrying a field hospital and another carrying staff and supplies (including kosher food for those who required it).
Meanwhile, the Israeli Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Amos Radian, had commandeered a caravan of Jeeps and trucks, which drove 16 hours straight to the Haitian airport to help unload and deliver supplies.
By Friday, the Israeli field hospital was being set up near the Port-au-Prince airport and included the following: 40 doctors, 25 nurses, a team of paramedics, a pharmacy, a children’s ward, a radiology department, an intensive-care unit, an emergency room, two operating rooms, a surgical department, an internal medicine department and a maternity ward.
One of the first people rescued on Saturday was a top income-tax official who had been trapped for four days under the rubble of the collapsed government building.
Within a few days, 13 Israeli rescue missions had been sent out, 172 surgeries performed and more than 500 patients treated at the field hospital. And eight babies were born.
Yagodovsky didn’t go to Haiti for the rescue — but he was in constant contact with his people. MDA provided staff and assistance to the Israeli mission as well to the international efforts that would follow. I asked him what made the Israelis respond so quickly.
“It’s very difficult to transition from a state of routine to one of emergency,” he told me. “So you have to incorporate the idea of emergency from the very beginning, in everything you do and everything you teach.”
As he spoke, Shahar Azani, who works with the Israeli Consulate here in Los Angeles, did something perfectly Israeli: he jumped into the conversation in a wild burst of excitement to tell a story of his own.
Five years ago, while Azani was stationed in Kenya, he and a colleague were visiting a school in one of the slums when they saw a pregnant woman being carried in a wheelbarrow. They realized that this was because there were no ambulances. So they quickly contacted Yossi Baratz from MASHAV, the division of the Foreign Ministry that specializes in humanitarian assistance, and they all got to work.
Baratz called a friend at MDA, which just happened to have two old ambulances they had stripped and were about to sell as regular vans. Instead, they re-equipped them as ambulances and offered them to MASHAV. Meanwhile, Azani called a friend at ZIM, the Israeli shipping company, which offered to ship the ambulances at no cost.
The first ambulance made its way to the city of Kwale, southwest of Mombasa in Kenya. The ambulance was the first ever to serve nearly 500,000 people living in the district.
As Azani was telling the story, Yagodovsky jumped in with an interruption of his own. Guess who was Baratz’s friend at MDA who had arranged for the two ambulances? That’s right: Yonatan Yagodovsky.
Small world, indeed.
While Azani and Yagodovsky did their few minutes of high-octane Jewish geography, I just sat back and absorbed the scene that had just unfolded. Here were a couple of Israeli Jews whose greatest source of satisfaction seemed to be helping people in desperate need.
At no point did the idea of “good PR for Israel” come up.
When I mentioned to Yagodovsky that Israel’s heroic efforts in Haiti were spreading a lot of much-needed positive vibes about Israel, he gave me an awkward look, as if to say: “That’s nice, but that’s not why we do it.”
In fact, there may be many reasons why Israel “does it”— an empathy for human suffering, lots of practice at emergency rescue, a belief in tikkun olam, a desire to be accepted by the world — but Yagodovsky didn’t mention any of those.
“Maybe we’re stupid and naïve,” he told me. “We just want to help.”