GENEVA — After 75 years, humanitarianism prevailed over rejectionism. Last Thursday, in the early morning hours, delegates to the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, assembled in Geneva from 192 states and 183 relief societies, voted by overwhelming majority to recognize the Magen David emblem and admit Israel’s relief society. In marking an end to one of the most notorious international restrictions against the Jewish state — reminiscent of the United Nation’s 1991 repeal of its “Zionism is Racism” indictment — the historic achievement refutes a fatalistic approach toward Israel’s isolation and underscores the potential of determined diplomacy to eliminate the demonization of Israel within key institutions of international law.
Success last week was hardly assured. The two-day conference was marred by acrimony as Muslim delegations from more than 50 countries attempted, first, to force the conference to adjourn, asserting that it was “procedurally illegal.” When that failed, the Islamic bloc, rejecting compromise, demanded last-minute amendments to the conference’s carefully negotiated resolution, seeking to wrest unrelated political concessions from Israel. When those, too, failed — thanks to the resolve and determination of Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and conference chairman Dr. Mohammed Al-Hadid (a Jordanian) — the Muslim group filibustered with one point of order after another, forcing the delegates to stay until 3 a.m. before the final vote and conclusion of the conference.
There were sharp words. The Syrian delegate accused Kellenberger of “lacking neutrality and objectivity.” The Palestinian ambassador said the conference was “an Israeli ploy,” and that Israel is the world’s “most flagrant violator of international law.” The Saudi representative said Israel’s relief society violates international humanitarian law “every day.” Iran’s delegate said the Magen David Adom (MDA) “insists on racial discrimination” and that its admission would be a “threat for the unity of the movement.”
It was precisely this sort of vehement opposition — part of a decades-long campaign to cast Israel as a pariah within the international arena — that hitherto prevented the Israeli society from joining the movement.
Few causes in recent years have galvanized supporters of international equality for Israel as much as the exclusion of the MDA. Mobilizing the principal actors — the U.S. government, the American Red Cross, the ICRC and the Swiss government — were not only Israeli démarches, but also the appeals of thousands around the world together with sustained diplomatic campaigns by several groups.
The MDA victory is two-fold. First, Israel’s humanitarian society will now be able to count on the support of the international movement as it fulfills its mission to serve those in need, and to fully cooperate with all societies, including the Palestinian Red Crescent that was admitted simultaneously.
Equally as important, there is a monumental achievement on the level of symbol. The Star of David is the emblem of Israel’s relief society, but it is much more. It is the flag of the State of Israel and the historic symbol of the Jewish people. Until last week — at a major world body that literally defines itself by symbols — the Star of David was rejected. Thanks to the activism of so many around the world, today it is accepted.
With the alarming rise of anti-Israel boycotts and selective divestment, some would surrender to the notion that Israel is fated to dwell alone, relying on the rabbinic dictum of “Esau hates Jacob” as a rule of nature. Hope is not a strategy, but neither is defeatism. The fact is that by working with allies and sympathizers the world over, determined diplomacy repealed an invidious U.N. resolution in 1991, won Israel’s admission to one of the United Nations’ five regional groups (albeit in New York only) in 2000, and, in 2006, has gained international recognition of the Magen David.
Will the U.N. General Assembly ever eliminate its annual ritual of condemning Israel in 19 one-sided resolutions? Will the world body’s human rights apparatus ever abandon special agenda items for the singling-out of Israel? We do not have to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.