(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
What does the word UNICEF mean to you? For a majority of passersby on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv, the automatic response was, "Barcelona Football Club." The correct answer of course is that UNICEF is the name of a 63-year-old international aid organization that provided humanitarian and developmental assistance to children.
UNICEF also appears across the chests of football stars Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta, but that's only because they have a unique reverse sponsorship deal with the elite Spanish football team. Instead of receiving money for advertising their sponsors, like all other teams do, Barcelona actually donates a portion of its income to the nonprofit organization.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, is currently looking for office space in Tel Aviv. The organization is opening a branch here to help raise money for children in developing countries, and to lend a hand and a voice to the children here in Israel who need their help. The Jerusalem Post met with UNICEF Israel's new director, Moriel Matalon, to hear about the organization's plans.
"A search is currently being conducted to find the Israeli Angelina Jolie," said Matalon jokingly, referring to the film star who is known for her philanthropic dedication. "Since we registered as a nonprofit organization a month ago, not a day goes by that people don't approach me to enlist and act to help our causes. At the moment it's just me and a small number of people, and we can barely handle all the offers."
Matalon said that he was certain celebrities, artists and business leaders would be eager to assist the organization. "We have a community of artists and cultural leaders in Israel who do a lot, and I think that UNICEF's agenda is one that is very easy to identify with," he said.
The managing partner of one of Israel's top law firms, Matalon said that UNICEF presented him with a perfect opportunity to return to public life and reconnect with his past as a political activist.
ALTHOUGH THE office planned for Tel Aviv would be new, UNICEF has had plenty of experience in Israel. The organization was present during the early days of the state, offering aid to orphan Holocaust survivors and immigrant children in the ma'abarot (resettlement camps), as well as in development towns during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
Between 1964 and 1965, Zena Harman, Israel's representative to UNICEF's executive board, served as the organization's chairwoman, and in 1965, she received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF. While accepting the Oslo honor may have represented the pinnacle of collaboration between UNICEF and the Jewish state, the Jewish connection to the organization dates back years earlier, when Ludwik Raijchmann, a Jewish physician from Poland, represented his country to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.
UNRRA was an organization which aimed to provide assistance to European children who had been deeply affected by World War II. Raijchmann led an initiative to establish UNICEF as an organization within the newly formed United Nations.
At the core of Raijchmann's initiative lay the belief that every child, homeless or orphaned, regardless of his origin, nationality or creed, is entitled to receive consistent support to ensure his survival. On December 11, 1946 the UN adopted this initiative and established UNICEF, which vowed to implement and broaden Raijchmann's vision.
"Israel stopped receiving aid from UNICEF roughly 40 years ago, and since that time it has disappeared from the scene," said Matalon. "I think it is very important for us as Israelis to try to fix some things that are wrong with our society with regards to children, and also to connect to global action for children in other countries around the world."
Matalon said he believes that it is important to show that just as Israeli companies are active around the world, so too can the country demonstrate its selflessness globally. He thinks that UNICEF is a great way to exhibit a different side of Israel, one that isn't associated with conflict and occupation.
"Israel is currently a world leader in fertility treatments," said Matalon. "That is just an example of the degree of importance that Israel places on raising children. It is something ingrained in our soul. There is nothing more Jewish and more Israeli than to care for children, wherever they are, and to create an agenda around children's well-being."
In Israel, UNICEF will act to protect children's rights and reduce violence against children, as well as to provide humanitarian aid where necessary.
"I think that over the last two or three years, Israel has seen a substantial rise in harm being done to children," said Matalon, pointing to cases of violence and neglect that have taken place recently.
"We are also seeing more violence used by parents against children, as well as children being violent with each other," he said. "UNICEF, which is committed to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, will act as a rallying cry, calling on the Israeli public and the state authorities to reduce the cases of violence against children."
Aware of the occassional feeling of competition among like-minded nonprofit organizations, Matalon was quick to assure that he would not be stepping on anybody's toes.
"We do not seek to replace the existing organizations which are doing great and important work," he said. "We would much rather form coalitions on any issues pertaining to children. I believe that with UNICEF's name recognition and international connections, we will be a welcome partner in any activity."
While UNICEF's Tel Aviv branch is brand new, the organization has a branch in Jerusalem, which serves the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. Matalon said that in the future both branches would cooperate, holding joint events and partnering in activities. A hint of things to come was the recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority of actress Mia Farrow, UNICEF's goodwill ambassador.
"The organization has no political agenda. We care for the Palestinian children, just like we care for the children of Sderot," said Matalon.
Another group that UNICEF Israel is looking forward to helping is the children of the illegal foreign workers, who are currently under the threat of deportation along with their families.
"We have a clear stance on the issue of the children of foreign workers," Matalon explained. "We believe that they should not be pawns of either their parents or the state."
"The situation is insufferable, and it is tragic because it arose from good intentions. We initially brought the children's mothers to Israel so they could care for our elderly. We brought over Filipino domestic aides to take care of our ailing parents, and then forbade them to have children of their own. It's terrible that we Jews, who see having children as such a basic thing, don't give that right to others."
Matalon was firm in saying amnesty should be granted to the children who were born here, and efforts made to develop an immigration policy that would regulate all future cases. "If we end up deporting them, we should be ashamed of ourselves," he added.
When it comes to the children of refugees and asylum seekers, Matalon was even more adamant. "Jews appealed for sanctuary for hundreds of years. When we have the heritage of 2,000 years of being refugees, we can't ignore their distress.
"We cannot deny our past. While we can't accept every request for asylum we receive, we must accept some in measured amounts. At the end of the day we have to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror."
While UNICEF Israel's activities will take place in Tel Aviv, Matalon is aware that the actions it takes will also reflect on Jews in New York and San Paolo. "Every Jew in the world carries a heavy burden that Israel places on them. I want to give them a reason to be proud, something to counter the hostile media reports and Israel-bashers," he said.