The International Red Cross: Friend or foe?

The International Red Cross: Friend or foe?

I was privileged to represent the Orthodox Union on a mission of leaders from a dozen major Jewish organizations to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The purpose of the trip was for the ICRC to enlighten the Jewish community, through its national organizations, about the work it does worldwide.

It’s no secret that the Red Cross and the Jewish community have found themselves at odds in the past. Israel’s Magen David Adom was denied admission until 2006, when the ICRC adopted the symbol of the “Red Crystal,” which one party described as a “compromise that pleases no one.” More recently, the Jewish community has bristled at the position of the ICRC regarding the conflict in Gaza. The ICRC’s policies of neutrality and impartiality may appear on the surface to be similar to such concepts as “moral equivalence” and “cycle of violence,” which have angered the Jewish community in the past by implying that Israel is an equal partner in the aggression that fuels the Middle East conflict. Ideologically, the philosophies are, in fact, quite different.

What’s noteworthy is the work that the ICRC does on behalf of Israel, which often goes completely unrecognized in the Jewish community because nobody screams as loudly about things that don’t upset them. Remember the charge that, in the Gaza conflict, Israel illegally utilized white phosphorous? Probably. Did you hear that the Red Cross looked at the situation and said that there was no evidence that Israel acted inappropriately? Less likely.

Far more surprising is the work that the Red Cross is doing on behalf of Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces soldier held by Hamas since June 2006. Apparently the ICRC has been working for some time with Hamas and its state sponsors to secure information about Shalit and access to him for Red Cross workers and, more important, Shalit’s family. While this is not unprecedented, it is rare that the Red Cross works so hard on behalf of an individual. And most people know nothing of this.

The focal point of the visit was the International Tracing Service. Since 1952, this unimposing edifice in a small German town has housed millions of records pertaining to victims of the Nazi Holocaust. As there are fewer family members to be reunited, the ITS is becoming more of a research center, but its work is still impressive, especially now that there are 15 staff members scanning documents full-time.

One member of our group was born in a displaced persons camp after the war. With a few keystrokes, an ITS staff member retrieved his records. The gentleman left with a ream of papers about his father, as well as copies burned to a CD. While not every inquiry will meet with such resounding success – especially those from Eastern Europe, where the record-keeping was nowhere as meticulous – the ITS provides a tremendous service to the Jewish community, and it’s run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

We will no doubt disagree again in the future. One of the many pamphlets and brochures I acquired in Geneva is entitled “Dignity Denied in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” This publication angers me, something it would not do if it said “in Sudan” or “in Sri Lanka.” This is because Israel is not the Janjaweed or the Tamil Tigers. I think the Red Cross is off-base here. Simply wrong. But now I have someone to talk to about it. That’s a great first step.