- - Monday, November 28, 2016

There are times when the worst situation brings out the best in us.

In my 10 years as a psychologist for first responder teams, I have seen people transcend their limitations when disaster strikes.

Fire. Flood. Earthquake. These sweep away institutional structures in a moment, and expose our underlying humanity. Some folks take advantage of the chaos by looting and violence, but most people rise to the challenge with their best human instincts.

Disasters set the stage for demonstrations of altruism, for extraordinary levels of cooperation and kindness seldom seen elsewhere.

So it was last week, when Israel suffered massive wildfires, a disaster of major proportions in that small country. A number of factors combined to create the “perfect storm” conditions for fires. After months of no rain, the land and forests were very dry, and provided ideal tinder for fire, which was then spread by dry winds. The fires’ origins are under investigation. Arson is suspected for some, negligence for others. What is known, though, is that at one point 75,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

And here’s where the best of humanity came into play. Jewish and Arab Israelis were among the evacuees, and both Jews and Arabs opened their homes to each other to take them in.

Yes, there were those in Arab social media and Islamist quarters who expressed schadenfreude, the base experience of pleasure at another’s misfortune, however, actions speak louder than words. When the fires exceeded Israel’s firefighting capacity, and it called for help, the international community responded, some despite their customarily hostile-to-Israel political and diplomatic rhetoric.

Firefighting assistance came from Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Russia, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Spain, Belarus, Britain, Bulgaria, Chechnya, France, Georgia, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland.

Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all joined the firefighting effort.

So did the Palestinian Authority, which sent personnel and fire trucks.

The American Supertanker, the world’s largest firefighting aircraft, and the only one that can operate at night, came from Colorado Springs to help bring the fires under control.

All were friends in need, for whom Israel is very grateful.

In her book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” author Rebecca Solnit describes the way local communities come together during disasters, and do so with joy, finding connection, meaning and purpose in the disruption. Last week we saw some of the same dynamic take place on the international level.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called Palestinian President Abbas to thank him for his assistance. Israeli President Rivlin thanked Turkish President Erdogan, who replied, “The normalization of the relations between Turkey and Israel is of utmost importance for the whole region.”

These are actions to grow on. Good can indeed emerge from adversity.

There can be an upside to disaster.

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