A star-crossed resignation

Avi Davis

Published 1/2/2002

For those of us born after the Holocaust and living in the West, the rumble of institutional anti-Semitism often resonates as a faint echo from a past that we can barely recognize. We take for granted that Jewish organizations, whose reach is international and whose work extends well beyond local concerns, will be accorded respect by the wider community of nations. Nevertheless, once in a while this belief is rattled by an incident that raises the lid on the steaming hatred that still seems to see the just below the surface of even the most benign causes.

That happened this fall with the abrupt resignation of Bernadine Healy, president of the American Red Cross. The International Red Cross (IRC) is one of the world's most idealized and best known humanitarian causes. But for 50 years there has been a disquieting aspect to this organization's work. It will not recognize nor admit to its ranks a sister organization in Israel Magen David Adom (MDA). The ostensible reason for this is that the Magen David Adom's symbol, a red star of David, does not conform to the accepted images of the IRC, which are either a cross or a red crescent. Magen David Adom, in existence for 70 years and carrying out life-saving functions all over the world, has repeatedly requested admittance to the international body but has been just as regularly rebuffed. Meanwhile, the American Red Cross has quietly acquiesced in this blatant prejudicial policy for years.

That was until Dr. Healy became president of the national body. Recognizing that nothing short of a divorce would shake the international body's resolve to maintain its policy, Dr. Healy fought a long and bitter campaign to compel it to own up to its discriminatory practices. The American Red Cross withheld its annual dues from the international body for two years while Dr. Healy embarked on personal diplomacy that stirred up a hornet's nest of accusations of wrongdoing in the international center in Geneva. This crusade reached its denouement in mid-October when the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross, angered, among other things, by Dr. Healy's commitment to principle, forced her resignation. So has ended, it appears, a noble quest to have a profound and historic wrong redressed.

The policy of the IRC would not be so callous and unreasonable if it did not fail so completely to recognize the invaluable work carried out by the Israeli organization, both at home and abroad. From the genocidal massacres of Rwanda to earthquake disasters in Turkey and Armenia, to famine emergencies in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the MDA has been a full contributor to international relief efforts without being once accorded the international recognition or status it deserves. Notwithstanding even this, it is well-known that the MDA does not discriminate at all between Arabs and Jews, or between Palestinians and Israelis. Its simple credo the protection and rescue of human life is one that exists in concert with that of the International Red Cross and yet apparently finds no sympathetic ear within the IRC bureaucracy.

One does have to wonder how such a deep, historic injustice has been able to stand with little obvious challenge for so many decades. Not that we need to look far for answers. French Red Cross President Marc Gentilli's response to the American boycott was instructive. Besides calling on the Palestine Red Crescent Society to immediately apply for membership to the international body, (before Palestine even becomes a state), he referred to Dr. Healy's campaign "as a disgusting maneuver to coerce the IRC to accept the Red Star of David as a third symbol of the organization." Mr. Gentilli's remarks, of course, leave little doubt of the repugnance in which he holds that symbol itself.

The failure of the International Red Cross to accord the MDA recognition would be shocking if it could be regarded as an isolated incident. But sadly it fits in squarely with intolerance in other such "universal" human undertakings such as sport, music and scholarship where the Jewish state regularly suffers exclusion and discrimination. We can only hope that Dr. Healy's valiant efforts will at least shame the leaders of the ARC into corrective action. But in the meantime, for those who care about the reputation of humanitarian causes, the consuming irony remains that, despite Dr. Healy's courage and pertinacity, the one organization so strongly associated in the public imagination with blood drives and life-saving, has placed itself in the vanguard of a movement that views one peoples' blood as in some way less pure than another's.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and the senior editorial columnist for Jewsweek.com, an online magazine.