Red Cross gives hope for inclusion of Magen David Adom

BY KEREN DOUEK, STAFF WRITER

Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, American Red Cross national chairman for the board of governors and former U.S. ambassador to Finland, visited St. Louis this week and met with members of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council, thanking the community for its support and relaying to the group a message of hope for the inclusion of Magen David Adom into the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

“I don’t see it as anything other than an opportunity now to get this job done and to get this behind us so we can move on,” McElveen-Hunter said following her meeting with the Federation.

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Currently, MDA is denied full membership because of its use of the Star of David as its emblem, as only the Red Cross and Red Crescent are accepted symbols under the Geneva Convention.

“The fact that they have not been included, we think, does not follow the overriding principles of universality of the international Red Cross,” McElveen-Hunter said.

“There are many opportunities for us to learn and gain from each other. Instead of just being present and participating, they will really have an opportunity to have a leadership role. Why shouldn’t we benefit from those experiences, skills and what they bring to the table?” she said.

David Meltzer, senior vice president of ARC International Services, said it has taken steadfast support for the entire 48 years that Israel has been a state and eligible to join the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to reach this point in negotiations.

“We finally had a diplomatic conference in December to adopt a new symbol that would allow MDA to continue using the red Star of David and use it in conjunction with this new symbol, the red crystal, and provide the means for this 48 years of disparate treatment to end,” Meltzer said.

The vote in December to amend the Geneva Convention to add the Red Crystal yielded 98 members in favor, 27 opposed and 10 who abstained. A two-thirds majority of those present is required for the amendment to pass. The next vote will be at the International Conference in June.

McElveen-Hunter said the issue is one that is “very near and dear to our heart, and one that we have for the last 48 years been diligent in working for, to bring an end to discrimination of Israel and its inclusion in the international federation.”

ARC has been supporting the issue from more than a diplomatic standpoint, too.

“This is not just talking the talk,” McElveen-Hunter said. “We have essentially put our money with our mouth is.”

In protest against the ARC Board of Governors’ refusal to accept MDA, the ARC has been withholding dues to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, totaling approximately $42 million.

“We simply cannot support the organization as long as they do not recognize inclusion of MDA,” McElveen-Hunter said.

While McElveen-Hunter said the use of the Red Crystal is a compromise, she noted that the Star of David can still be flown in the Israeli territories, while outside of that area MDA would have to ask permission to use the symbol, just as the Red Cross must request permission to fly the Red Cross in Islamic countries, and the star would go inside the crystal.

“We feel like it is time to get this adopted and time to go on to the humanitarian work that we are all about,” she said.

Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said the Federation was proud to host McElveen-Hunter together with leadership of the ARC and St. Louis chapter and leaders of Federation and the JCRC.

“The meeting provided an opportunity to learn more about the tremendous leadership that ARC and the ambassador provided in the quest to have the International Red Cross recognize Magen David Adom,” Rosenberg said. “Both Federation and JCRC enjoy strong relationships with Red Cross and are deeply appreciative of their efforts on behalf of MDA.”

Don Rubin, the Israel chair of the JCRC, said the JCRC is “very pleased with our ongoing relationship with the St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross and its commitment to this issue.”

Rubin said the local chapter has shown a commitment to the issue by installing a display of the Magen David Adom symbol in its lobby.

“Building on that local relationship,” Rubin said, “it was very heartening to hear and experience the unwavering commitment of the national organization to achieve a desirable resolution, and I think we all came away feeling more optimistic because of the unyielding stand the ARC has had on the inclusion of the MDA into the ranks of the International Red Cross.”

Meltzer said the Israeli government and MDA are “110 percent behind the adoption of the Red Crystal.”

“They see this as a means to a very good end — which is inclusion in the movement, join the federation, start earning the benefits that come with membership — and they endorsed this several years ago when the compromise was first proposed,” he said.

Benefits of inclusion the MDA would receive include a vote, the opportunity to run for office and financial support. And of high importance, according to Meltzer, “by being a member of the Federation Israel would be able to put people in Geneva to start learning from people who have face man-made and natural disasters and bring that knowledge and expertise back to Israel, so if and when a disaster strikes, MDA is actually better equipped and better able to respond and provide the valuable humanitarian services.”

Meltzer also emphasized the importance of the fact that Israel would then be involved, “so if someone were to say something inaccurate about MDA or about Israel, they are there and they can respond and they are going to be treated as equals.”

“That has not been the case for 48 years, and that is, in my view, the less tangible but more important benefit to membership. You’re in the tent,” he said.

Even with the progress that has been made, McElveen-Hunter said the vote will still be far from unanimous. According to McElveen-Hunter, Syria has indicated opposition, as well as Sudan, Iraq, North Korea and Cuba. She said the “excuse” given is often that the time is not right.

“I always think, ‘If not now when?'” she said.

“We’re all unhappy about developments in the Mideast from a political standpoint,” Meltzer said, “but it’s important that the MDA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society be permitted to act in a humanitarian way to provide assistance to people who are injured, regardless of what side of the line they are on.”

Keren Douek is a staff writer and can be reached at [email protected]