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Crosses, Crescents and Stars

Staff Writer, New York Times, April 22, 2005
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has member organizations from more than 180 countries, but not Israel. Excluding Israel is wrong, and it diminishes the Red Cross movement's moral standing. But there is a real chance that under heavy pressure from the American Red Cross, the policy will change in the near future. For the sake of the Red Cross as much as Israel, it should. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies includes Red Cross organizations from North Korea, Iran and Cuba, but not from Israel. The reason it gives is that the corresponding Israeli society, Magen David Adom, uses the Jewish star as its emblem and will not adopt the red cross or red crescent, emblems that are recognized by the Geneva Conventions and the international Red Cross movement. Understandably, the Israelis do not want to adopt either of these emblems because they are heavy with religious meaning.

There is growing pressure on the Red Cross federation to change its policy. Since 2000, the American Red Cross has protested the discrimination against Israel by withholding $30 million in dues from the federation. Unless something changes before the 181 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies meet in November, the American Red Cross will have withheld its dues for five years. That means it could have its voting rights suspended, which would be a setback for both the American Red Cross and the international Red Cross movement.

The best solution would be for the umbrella organization, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to drop both the cross and the crescent and to adopt a protective emblem with no religious connotation. It would be less divisive and safer for rescue workers, who are now in danger of being targeted because of the religious symbolism of the emblem they operate under. It seems unlikely that the Red Cross movement will switch to a single emblem anytime soon, but it is working on a plan that could allow Israel to join.

It is considering adding a protective emblem devoid of religious connotations, known as the red crystal, which could be adopted by Israel and by other nations that do not want to use the cross or the crescent. But there are a series of procedural hurdles that must be jumped over, starting with amending the Geneva Conventions. Switzerland, the official depository of the Conventions, is now sounding out the 191 signatory nations to see whether there is enough support for the change. If the Geneva Conventions are amended, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which includes the federation, would then have to change its statutes to recognize the new emblem.

Despite all the talk of emblems, it is politics that have impeded Israel's entry. That situation puts the Red Cross movement in an unfortunate position. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the arm of the movement that works in conflict zones and visits prisoners, often finds itself urging nations to put politics aside and do the right thing, such as in its current work on behalf of the detainees at the American prison in Guantánamo Bay. It will be in a better position to make these moral appeals when it can show that it is part of a movement that does what is right, rather than what is politically expedient, when it comes to running its own shop.