Sunday, December 04, 2005

Magen David Adom

Behold, a new rant! I'm submitting for this publication, by the way, but just in case it doesn't make it (as is likely)...

The Jewish newspapers of late have featured ads telling us to rejoice: A seventy-five year old error is about to be remedied, and the Magen David Adom (the MDA is Israel’s equivalent to the Red Cross) is about to be recognized by the international community. The ads were placed by the American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI), the organization’s fundraising arm in the United States, which has also sent out mass emails informing us of the same event. This week, there will be a world conference in Geneva, and all will go Israel’s way, for once.

Or will it? Leaving aside the question of whether the end of such a long-standing injustice shouldn’t instead call for some quiet reflection, we Jews have learned through bitter experience- especially over the last fifteen years- that when the world tells us to rejoice, we should instead take a cold, hard look at facts and history. And even looking at the face of the ads and emails, what we find is something quite troubling instead.

Let’s begin with history: Laws of warfare, concerning treatment of civilians, prisoners, the wounded, and so on, have existed for millennia, but until relatively recently were not formally codified or enforced. Of course, while they were generally respected, the laws were broken from time to time. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in the 1860's in response to violations of these laws in wars of that era. Under its auspices, the Geneva Conventions were drawn up, and virtually every country on Earth is now a signatory.

The ICRC is not an international organization as we generally use the term: It consists, at its core, of a few dozen Swiss citizens, and runs relief efforts around the world. For its symbol, the organization simply reversed the colors of the flag of Switzerland, the country, even back then known for its neutrality, in which it was founded and is based. (Such "neutrality" is another well-known "fact" upon which Jews have learned to cast a jaundiced eye.) An equal-armed white cross on red thus became an equal-armed red cross on white.

While religious symbols shared by many nations may be rightly seen as neutral ones, the Red Cross was therefore not invented with a religious meaning in mind. The Swiss flag was seen as a secular symbol, itself based on an older flag of one of the Swiss cantons that itself may have chosen a cross more for its design than for its religious meaning. However, this idea was not to last.

In addition to the ICRC, all the countries of the world have created national aid societies based on its principles. In most cases, the symbol of these countries is the same Red Cross as the ICRC uses. However, when, in the 1870's, the Ottoman Empire became the first Muslim nation to establish such a society, it insisted on using a Red Crescent instead, stating that its Muslim sensibilities were offended by the Red Cross. The ICRC and the Geneva Conventions both recognized the Crescent, today used by dozens of countries. The various national societies are united in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

With the establishment of the Red Crescent, the idea of the Red Cross as a religious image was firmly planted. The Soviet Union, with both Christian and Muslim populations, used both together. Countries in the Middle East with mixed populations, like Sudan, Syria, and Lebanon, tried to establish new symbols, but eventually settled on the Crescent; countries in Asia that were neither religion, like India and Japan, also tried to establish new symbols, but eventually settled on the Cross.

However, what worked for religions like Hinduism and Buddhism- not monotheistic and therefore not offended by another religion’s symbol- didn’t work for Jews. In the late 1920's, the Jewish community of Palestine established the Red Magen David.

To make a long story short, it’s been over seventy-five years since then, and the Red Magen David is still waiting for recognition. And following in the footsteps of international organizations on a host of issues, the Red Cross has dragged its feet. It’s brought out the old argument- now meaningless for 125 years- that the Red Cross is not a religious symbol. It’s protested that it worries that opening the door to any number of symbols.

This last might possibly be a good argument (although one may wonder why, if true, one symbol isn’t even better than two). However, there’s one ridiculous fact that exposes it as meaningless: In the 1920's, just as the Magen David Adom was being established, Persia, later Iran, established its own symbol, a Red Lion and Sun (based on the symbol of Persia). It was formally recognized by the Geneva Convention. After the Islamic revolution in Iran, though, that country switched to using a Crescent. And yet in a fine display of international inertia, the Red Lion and Sun continues to be recognized, although no one uses it, exactly the opposite situation as exists in Israel. (Countries that use both Cross and Crescent, like Kazakhstan and Eritrea, are also officially out of luck.)

Time has lately run out for the ICRC and IFRC. The MDA has proven itself time and again as an incredible organization worthy of recognition, not only in Israel but around the globe, as it sends relief missions to disasters worldwide. Perhaps more significantly, the American Red Cross has refused to pay its dues to the international organization- and that’s a significant chunk of their budget.

And so that brings us to the events coming up this week. At long last, we are assured, the MDA will be recognized. But look a little closely at the newspaper ads. Odd- there’s a diamond around the Magen David. Why?

Well, it appears that simply accepting the MDA would be too much of an effort for the ICRC. So, in a process that took years, and despite their stated fears of another new emblem, the Red Cross has decided to solve the problem by...adding yet another symbol! This will be the "Red Crystal" or Diamond or Lozenge. Any nation not using the Cross or Crescent will have to use this new symbol, adding (at times when it’s allowed, which won’t be always, making things even more complicated) their own symbol or symbols in the center.

And lest we think that the good old double standard the world applies to Israel is dead, rest assured that all nations currently using a Cross or Crescent will be able to continue to do so. Essentially, the "acceptance" of the MDA will come in such a way that Israel, and Israel alone, will have to change its emblem.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, last week brought the email from ARMDI. In it, we were proudly told that the MDA had recognized the Palestinian Red Crescent. (The Palestinians, not having a country, were also out of luck.) It doesn’t take an expert in international relations to read between the lines here: The MDA was told that to "correct" a problem that never should have existed in the first place, it would have to recognize "the other side." Yes, that Palestinian Red Crescent which, as you may have read, has been implicated in aiding terror attacks a number of times. To gain long-deserved recognition, the MDA has to change its emblem and grovel before its enemy.

Don’t get me wrong: The MDA, and, in its own way, the ARMDI, do fantastic work and deserve our continued support. I have no inside knowledge of whether there are any behind the scenes deals that will, say, gain total recognition for the MDA through this process. And I am well aware of real world implications of this deal: Israel has not fought an open war with another country in twenty years, but I wouldn’t put it past an Arab neighbor to attack Israeli field medics while claiming that the MDA isn’t internationally recognized.

As for the ARMDI, I can imagine that they do run into difficulty over this issue as well. Canada, that bastion of tolerance, recently ruled against fundraising for the MDA on grounds it was not recognized. So perhaps they have real reasons for pushing this change, distasteful as it may be, as well.

I’d like to close with one anecdote. In 1928, the dean of a Catholic law school in the United States wrote a letter to Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, first president of Yeshiva University. Apparently, he had a number of Jewish students who were uncomfortable with the cross depicted on the diploma the school awarded, and he wanted to know if there was a halakhic issue that would force them to decline it.

Rabbi Revel responded that there was likely no issue- the cross (particularly with no image on it) wasn’t meant as a religious symbol, just as a symbol of the school’s affiliation. The students could accept the diploma with no qualms. However, he concluded by praising the students whose concerns rose above the worldly, and mentioned the idea of equity- that there is more than just the letter of the law.

Certainly, the Red Cross is punctilious in adhering to the letter of the law. And perhaps we should have no legal or religious concern in adopting crystals or even crosses. But should we be happy about this process? All along, the Red Cross has had a very easy possibility before it: Issue a non-specific one sentence resolution along the lines of, "Any symbol in continuous use by a national aid society for the past seventy-five years, or any combination of these, is acceptable." That would solve any of the many concerns listed above. Better, they could be specific: "The Red Magen David is now acceptable," with perhaps an extra line saying that this is done in light of extraordinary circumstances and history, and any further changes will be much more carefully scrutinized. But issuing the first statement would give Israel the same rights as any other nation. To issue the second would be to make it even more official. And to do that- indeed, to recognize that it is a Jew who wears a Magen David who aids victims around the world regardless of origin, to grant Jews the same rights as any other human being- seems to be beyond the abilities of the world at large.

A quiet moment of brief satisfaction? Just maybe. Joy and gratitude? I see no reason for any such thing.


Zach Harden said...

Good posting. If you want to show an example of the new "Red Diamond" symbol, you can always use the link I gave you and use the drawings I made.

Liz said...

Beautifully written. It just occured to me though, that as long as we as Jews agonize over every single "act of inequality" - we will remain forever miffed. I mean, is it all that tragic?