It was windy on the mountain, windy enough that a small scrap of black plastic tarp was blown through the air, into my field of view, and over the top of the memorial. What a shame, I thought to myself, that the quiet, simple scene intended by the memorial’s artist was intruded on by construction leftovers. It didn’t shock me, though, as we had passed a chained-off gate holding a sign probably scolding us for entering the memorial before it was completed, although it was hard to get a definite read on the warning beause (a) it was in Hebrew and (b) was covered in mud from the many other pairs of feet that had the same idea. How very Israeli of us, I thought. No apologies or permission, just action.
Wind-swept trash and I do not agree very well. Between wearing glasses and having previous experiences with cameras meeting rocks that didn’t end well for the cameras, I wanted to get away from more lens-scratching, dust-carrying objects. I looked around for the source of the floating trash and as often happens in Israel, I found what I wasn’t looking for: the “plastic tarp” wasn’t man-made trash.
It was a rectangle of scorched bark.
We were at the site of the Carmel Fire Victims Memorial, a tribute to the 44 people killed last December: 36 Israeli prison service officer cadets, their commander, a 16-year old volunteer, their bus driver and two firemen. The tragedy started when the cadets’ bus was engulfed in flames by a fast-moving forest fire.The cadets’ mission: help evacuate prisoners incarcerated in a facility further up the mountain. Only three of the cadets in that class survived; the names of all of the victims are set at the foot of the sweeping, oxidized, natural steel arch that commemorates their service and bravery. You see a cross-section of modern Israel in the names: Biblical and modern Hebrew, Russian, Ethiopian (Amhari).
Prisoners in the Carmel Mountain facility are primarily “security prisoners,” a euphemism for those who have had direct involvement in the murder of civilians. Why did the Israel Prison Service strive, so hard, to rescue people who clearly placed no value on the lives of others? Walking through the memorial, I was reminded of the prayer we recite on Yom Kippur, “who shall live and who shall perish, who by fire and who by water?” It’s not for us, and not for those charged as guardians of other humans, prisoners or not, to decide through action or inaction. As difficult and emotional as it is to deal with a relationship in which there’s clearly unequal respect, that is the Jewish, and the very Israeli, lesson for the American visitors. To do otherwise is to emulate Pharoah in the story of the Exodus, hardening his heart to his treatment of the Jewish people. Marv Ross has probably never been quoted in Torah commentary before, but a lyric from his 1980 semi-hit “Harden My Heart” seems appropriate: if you go down that path, you “turn and leave you [them] here.” Israel Prison Services, the Israel Police, the Israel Firefighters and their families are to be commended for not turning away. The story we recite each spring reminds us what it’s like to be on the other side of such unethical treatment.