Here’s a positive story for a change: IsraAID, an aid organization founded in Israel, operates in areas of disaster, crisis and hardship, with the support of Jews around the world. Founder Shachar Zahavi sought to emulate UNICEF and similar organizations. The organization has an international board of directors and branches in Japan, the United States, Kenya, South Sudan and the Philippines; but the organization is identified with Israel – the country, not the government – just as the Red Cross is identified with its birthplace, Switzerland, and Doctors Without Borders is identified with France.
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Zahavi, from Moshav Hadar Am in the Sharon, comes from “a farming family with a social justice orientation,” and says he was moved to get into international aid after seeing the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s. That was followed by natural and man-made disasters in Haiti, Turkey, Kosovo and India.
IsraAID is an organization of Israelis, but not of Israel. When the IDF Home Front Command sends an emergency team somewhere, doctors from the two participating sectors, state and private, work together. In Haiti, patients were sent from the IsraAID civilian emergency clinic at the Port-au-Prince stadium to the military hospital at the airport, with pages of information in Hebrew pinned to their clothing.
The two disaster areas where IsraAID is currently focused are Kurdistan which is struggling under the Islamic State onslaught, and West Africa, which has been hard hit by the Ebola epidemic. The Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation (known by the Hebrew acronym MASHAV) has purchased three clinics packed in shipping containers that are being sent to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. IsraAID staff will take delivery of the containers, join forces with the World Health Organization and operate the clinics.
At-risk populations also need psycho-social training to dispel the tension that exists between service providers and recipients, due to the latter’s distrust of the authorities. What seems obvious in Israel – mass immunization at the behest of the Health Ministry and the health maintenance organizations – is often met with mistrust in Africa, as a result of civil wars, tribal conflicts and the medical personnel’s fears of contracting the disease.
In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, IsraAID’s efforts are focused on assisting the Kurdish and Yazidi refugees who were uprooted by the Islamic State incursions and massacres. Zahavi says they are even worse off than the Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey and Jordan: In Iraq, the refugees have nothing to take with them when they flee. “The Kurds are wonderful hosts and are trying to help all the refugee camps. We’re assisting by supplying things on their lists of vital items for the harsh winter – collecting blankets, mattresses and sanitation equipment.”
The identities of recent IsraAID emissaries – who include Israelis (with dual passports) alongside Americans – is known but not advertised. That is to ensure their safety, though Zahavi says that IsraAID “won’t go somewhere that doesn’t want Israeli aid.” Danger lurks around every corner. A photographers who returned from a journalistic assignment in another sector of the Turkey-Syria border said last week that he was warned not to trust anyone, because locals whose relatives were kidnapped by IS are tempted to try to secure their release by turning in foreigners with Western passports. An Israeli hostage would be the big prize.
Among the disaster victims, however, there is a glaring difference between the grateful and positive attitude toward Israelis, as individuals and members of organizations, and the attitude toward their government and its policies, which are widely detested. As during the peak period of the Center for International Cooperation in Africa and Asia in the 1960s, the infrastructure for restoring Israel’s prestige in the region and the world already exists. It’s a shame to see the extent to which the government in Jerusalem that’s settling in the territories is contributing to an eternal national-religious war.