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Red Cross/magen David Adom Issue Simmers, Even As U.S. Releases Funds

July 18, 2003
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The decision to release $11 million in U.S. aid to the Red Cross is putting the spotlight on ongoing tensions between the international organization and Israel’s emergency relief agency.

In announcing the decision last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Magen David Adom is “not being denied participation in the activities of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement” — despite the fact that Magen David Adom has been barred from full membership because it uses the Star of David emblem.

U.S. Jewish leaders reacted with dismay to Powell’s announcement.

“We will be satisfied when Israel is a full member,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said. “We shouldn’t give up our leverage until Israel is admitted.”

The Red Cross’ official reason for barring the Star of David is that allowing Israel’s national symbol might encourage other countries to press for the inclusion of their emblems. But the exclusion generally is attributed to intense lobbying against Israel by Muslim and Arab members of the International Red Cross.

“The United States should stand by the Israeli humanitarian organization to ensure this injustice does not go unresolved,” he said. “The best leverage Congress has over the” International Committee of the Red Cross “is not to release any money to pay for the ICRC headquarters.”

The release of funds appears to be the State Department’s way to praise the Red Cross for its efforts to reach a compromise with Magen David Adom.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a statement that Powell’s move allows the government to make a contribution to ICRC headquarters.

Even though Magen David Adom has not achieved full membership, he added, it long has participated in the movement’s activities, and the United States “continues to strongly support the efforts that will lead to full membership of the Magen David Adom.”

With Powell’s decision, the United States is free to contribute about $11 million to the budget of the ICRC headquarters in Geneva. The United States has an option each year to withhold the funds if the secretary of state determines that progress is not being made in integrating Magen David Adom into the Red Cross movement, said Amanda Williamson, a spokesperson for the ICRC.

In 2000, a solution to the Star of David dilemma appeared to be close at hand, Williamson said. The ICRC spearheaded the effort to create a new emblem in the shape of a diamond that could be used in wartime by any nation within the Red Cross movement.

But efforts to resolve the impasse were stymied with the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

“We hope the new climate in the Middle East could provide us with a window of opportunity to raise the issue again,” Williamson said, referring to the “road map” peace plan. “We’re committed to pursuing this.”

Last month, Magen David Adom and the ICRC signed their first cooperation agreement, which included support for the Israeli agency’s activities in emergency medical service, disaster management and tracing of missing persons.

The emblem dispute apparently was a critical factor in the 2001 resignation of Bernadine Healy, former president of the American Red Cross.

Healy angered her board when she decided to withhold American Red Cross dues from the ICRC to protest the group’s refusal to give the Magen David Adom full membership.

The American Red Cross has been withholding $20 million in administrative payments to the Red Cross movement for the last four years as a way to put pressure on the ICRC and the federation to include Magen David Adom as a full member, said Devorah Goldburg, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.

Powell’s decision doesn’t affect the American Red Cross position.

Martin Raffel, associate executive director of Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he was concerned that some people might misconstrue Powell’s move as a sign that the Israeli agency had been given full membership.

“Looking at the way the law is written, it is true that MDA is involved in activities of the” Red Cross movement, Raffel said, “but it really does not address the ultimate goal of formal recognition.”

Indeed, some say the move should not deflect attention from the fact that Magen David Adom — and, therefore, Israel — suffers from discrimination.

“We hope the funds sent by the State Department don’t mean they will not press forward. We urge them to press forward even more so to accept the MDA,” said Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti- Defamation League. “This shouldn’t be taken as a sign of any major change in the Red Cross’ attitude toward Israel. The big obstacle is the refusal to treat Israel as any other country.”

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