The ministry mystery tour: Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen

Anyone who doubts that the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot should have been in Israel this week. As if latter-day prophets were lining up their chariots to be whisked heavenward, the wind roared and whistled, churned and twisted, and flung in our faces purple, brown, and yellow sand carried from distant deserts.

The 50-year-old cypresses outside my kitchen window in Jerusalem swayed and gyrated like drunken Hassidim on Purim. The newborn cypresses on Road 1 looked too young to be exposed to such violence as the wind forced them to bow low to its power.

But all that was as nothing compared to what happened on the coast, where torrential rains flooded homes in Tel Aviv and the wind sent 25-foot waves crashing against the ancient port of Caesarea, tore up the boardwalk in the Tel Aviv Port entertainment area, and sank a Moldovan freighter (whose crew managed to escape alive).

The wind, the rain, and the snow that fell late Sunday night on the approach to Jerusalem almost made the horrendous Mount Carmel fire—which claimed 43 lives and consumed 12,500 acres of forest, nature reserves, residential areas, and tourist sites—seem ancient history. But just a few days had passed since the collaborative work of planes from many countries and fire engines from the Palestinian Authority backed up efforts by Israeli firefighters to finally extinguish the flames.

It was not too soon for a journalist to seek an official tally of the fire’s damage. All I asked for was a list of the villages and towns affected by the fire, and, if possible, the number of houses in each that were totally or partially destroyed.

I started with the Government Press Office, which had sent out a barrage of press releases daily about the fire. Andy Luterman of the GPO said the Prime Minister’s Office is in charge of dealing with the fire and should know. The Prime Minister’s Office did not know, but was certain that the Internal Security Ministry should know.

The Internal Security Ministry did not have a clue, but said that since firefighting was the Interior Ministry’s responsibility, it should know. Maybe it should, but the Interior Ministry insisted it had no idea and sent me to the Defense Ministry.

Chava at the Defense Ministry responded with “Why us? Who in the Interior Ministry sent you to us? It’s their responsibility.” Back to the Interior Ministry, where Osnat kindly referred me to the Construction and Housing Ministry (it was houses I was asking about, right?).

Racheli at the Construction and Housing Ministry asked me to put my query in writing. I did. By that time it was Sunday, and the storm was in full progress. And now it is Tuesday, and the Construction and Housing Ministry is still silent.

I came away from my tour of the ministries with my question unanswered. Clearly, they were all so busy dealing with the storm that they couldn’t answer a simple question about the fire. Or perhaps they were being honest when they said they just didn’t know. Ignorance on the part of a government ministry would hardly be surprising.

And that made me wonder how much credence one could give to the prime minister’s promises that everyone affected would be helped, and quickly. How could any government ministry provide help if no ministry knew who needed it?

And perhaps it was this know-nothing attitude that had enabled the fire to cause such damage in the first place. I was ready to hop in Elijah’s chariot and allow myself to be carried away by the wind.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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