A tough job, but someone has to do it

A tough job, but someone

By
December 31, 2009 16:17
moriel matalon

moriel matalon. (photo credit: )

The United Nations and Israel. Israel and the UN. Viewed from almost any perspective, our country's relationship with this organization has been anything but a marriage made in Heaven. When former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1955 famously dismissed the world body with a wave of his hand and his now iconic expression, "Oom, shmoom" - combining the Hebrew acronym for UN with a Yiddish expression of scorn - he was perhaps perfectly reflecting the attitude of most Israelis, then and now, to this association of nations, its policies and activities. For most of its 64-year history, the UN has been seen here in Israel as little more than a morally bankrupt debating society in which Israel is routinely singled-out, attacked, vilified and demonized, while other countries with truly repressive regimes and brutal policies are rarely, if ever, criticized - and in fact are among the countries that criticize Israel most vehemently. Into this grim political landscape strides Moriel Matalon, 61, managing partner of Gornitzky & Co., a high-powered law firm arrayed throughout an almost intimidatingly elegant suite of offices, perched high above Tel Aviv, on the 12th floor of a sleek tinted-glass skyscraper towering over Rothschild Boulevard. Looking very much like a "take-no-prisoners" corporate manager and successful senior attorney, Matalon is also the Chairman of Israel Fund for UNICEF - the UN agency dedicated, in its own words, to working "around the world saving children's lives and ensuring their right to survive," and one which is often perceived as being particularly critical of Israel's conduct in Gaza and the West Bank. Evidently relishing the challenge to "market an unpopular brand," and undaunted by what some would consider a superhuman job of public relations, Matalon is now opening an active office for UNICEF in Tel Aviv. Matalon will continue as his law firm's managing partner, while serving as UNICEF's representative on a pro-bono basis. Metro visited Matalon recently to ask some obvious questions, to which Matalon responded with some surprising answers. When your new office is up and running, will you be a full-time UNICEF director for Israel? No. I am the Chair of what is basically an NGO, the Israeli Fund for UNICEF, which is similar to national fund committees for UNICEF that exist in more than 30 countries around the world. In UNICEF, the world is divided into two groups, "haves" and "have-nots." In wealthy countries - Western European countries, the United States, Japan and South Korea, and Israel - countries able to help children in poorer countries, we have these national committees. In the poorer countries, the developing countries, UNICEF has program offices. As with the other national committee offices in developed countries, most of our resources will go to needy children in Africa, South America and Asia. Israel in its early years had virtually all of the earmarks of a "developing country." What kind of assistance, if any, did UNICEF provide? UNICEF was very active here during the first years of Israel - extremely active between 1948 and the late 1950s - with new immigrants, in the ma'abarot transit camps, helping with medicines, vaccinations, milk, nutrition and even housing. Fortunately, since the 1960s we haven't needed help like this. But here and there, when a special need has arisen, UNICEF has been there for us. Most recently, two years ago, UNICEF donated $400,000 to build a center in Sderot for children suffering from fear and stress from the bombing. But now, with the opening of this office, Israel can show that we have moved from the countries that need help to the countries that give help. However wealthy Israel may have become, there is still a considerable amount of need here. One might say that we are still straddling the line between countries that can give help and countries that need it. Will your office also address local problems? When we talk about children's health, education, nutrition and so on, we know where the main needs exist, and that's Asia, Africa and Latin America. At the same time, UNICEF's job is to protect children wherever they are in need - and that's not just talking about health, nutrition and education. We're also talking about children's rights, and regrettably, in that area we still have a lot of work to do here in Israel. We intend to do that work. You were quoted recently as saying that your first efforts would be on behalf of the 1,200 Israeli-born children of foreign workers slated for deportation. Is that the kind of work you intend to do? Seeking justice for these children is important, but it is an urgent, immediate, short-term issue. And while we hope to change the policies that have led to this situation, our mission is much broader. Twenty years ago, on November 20, 1989, the world adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This was promoted by UNICEF. Israel was one of the signatories. Each country was supposed to implement the Convention by integrating it into its local laws. And now, fully 20 years later, despite years of discussion, reports of committees, reports of subcommittees, recommendations, more discussion, more committees, reports and recommendations, Israel has for all practical purposes done almost nothing. In my opinion, the result of Israel's lack of attention to children and youth has been the yearly decline of Israel's test results in mathematics, science, English and so on. Israeli children may know how to play with computers, surf the Internet and be on Facebook, but when it comes to science or the ability to quote either Bialik or the Bible, you can see the deterioration in the quality of education here in Israel. At the same time, you see the high rise of violence both in school and wherever young people gather. Children are also subject to increasing violence at home. Children, the future of our country, must be placed at the top of Israel's agenda - second, perhaps, only to security. Putting children at the top of the agenda will be UNICEF's mission in Israel. Israel has no lack of NGOs whose major if not sole focus of attention is children. What will UNICEF do that these already functioning organizations are not doing? One of our major efforts will be toward the promotion of children's rights here in Israel. We are particularly interested in education, in ensuring that every Israeli child receives the best education possible so that Israel can maintain a top position in the sciences and other areas. But we will not be "on the ground," working directly with children the way NGOs do. UNICEF will be working vis-à-vis the government, as an advocacy group, criticizing to whatever extent necessary Israel's lack of attention to education. We will create coalitions with other organizations, use the media, raise our voices and hammer on the government and the Knesset day and night to put this issue at the top of Israel's agenda. Considering the decades of Israel's overall treatment - or perhaps mistreatment - by the UN, how do you plan to operate in a country where the predominant attitude toward the UN ranges from merely negative to patently hostile? For a start, I want to say that because an organization's name begins with the letters "U" and "N" and belongs to the United Nations does not mean that it's the same as other organizations in the UN. Unlike other UN agencies that deal with conflicts and political issues, UNICEF deals solely with children. And when you look at needy children around the world and the agony in which they live - sometimes caused by war, but 99% of the time caused by hunger and lack of resources and infrastructure - you realize that this agony transcends politics. But how will you answer those who say that there are needy children in Israel, and that charity should begin at home? Years ago, we used to walk around the world proud to be Israelis. Today, in many countries, being Israeli is a disgrace. Even in the United States, our friend and ally, Israelis coming to speak on college campuses are greeted with protests and people shouting that they are murderers, killers of children. This is something that should upset any Israeli, whether he is here or going abroad for vacation or work. And if we want to do something to change this, then we need to show the world that we are different. So, I'm thinking, what would be the best way to do this? Something pleasant. Something that would do one's heart proud as an Israeli. Some way to reconquer some of the world's sympathy. And that way is to help children around the world. I think that this is the best way to do this, in a very Jewish and humane way. So you think that by helping needy children in other countries, Israel will improve its international image? That is one message that I have for Israelis. I believe that if I went downstairs right now and began saying this to people on Rothschild Boulevard, people would agree with me. But I have another message as well. Today, we have Israeli companies selling products, selling services, or raising funds around the world almost more than any other country of our size. If you go to NASDAQ you will find that, next to the US, the largest country with the most corporations registered is Israel. We sell products and services all around the world. And we try to attract investments into Israel from around the world through the stock market and so on. So we need the cooperation of the people of the world, either as clients or as investors. And we need to show them that like other companies around the world, Israeli companies are aware of their social responsibilities. When you're trying to show your clients or investors that you feel socially responsible, it will not suffice that you merely feel socially responsible back home in Israel. You need to show them that you have a global perspective, and that you're not only taking money from selling products worldwide, but that you're also contributing worldwide. What better way can I offer to the multinational corporations of Israel who are striving to increase their international profile and sales than to help children around the world? Helping children is beyond debate, beyond reproach. So that is my dual message: To the Israeli man in the street, I say that if you want to walk with pride around the world, then we have to do something. And to the Israeli corporate executive, if you want to show social responsibility, then we have to do something. In both cases, I believe we can build a bridge to the world by helping children. Can your office effectively perform the big task of aiding children in Israel while raising funds for children overseas? I don't think that one task will compete with the other. We are going to be active here at home, cooperating with other organizations. We don't need to compete with local NGOs like WIZO and Na'amat who are doing a fantastic job. We will work with them in many activities. At the same time, we don't want to live in a ghetto of our own country. If you ask almost anyone in Israel what happened with our living conditions in the last 10 or 15 years, everybody would say that it's much better now, that we live in better homes, and that we have a much more prosperous society. How did this happen? How did this great improvement come about? How did we become a richer country in almost every respect? The answer is that we became global. Because we are selling our products internationally and attracting investments from abroad. Because we are part of the world. The question is, do we want to go back to our Israeli ghetto and forget about the rest of the world, or do we want to continue going global? Going global means we'll be a stronger and more prosperous country. And if we want to continue to do this and succeed as a nation, we need to show the world our better side.


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