UN targets Israel - for work

It has been a less than harmonious relationship, but the UN wants Israelis in its workforce.

October 18, 2007 12:35
refugee un 88 224

refugee un 88 224. (photo credit: AP)


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Job hunters take note: The United Nations is hiring. Last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid and Tel Aviv University hosted their second "Awareness and Recruitment Seminar" with the UN. The aim of the seminar was to present UN employment opportunities for the benefit of qualified Israelis, specifically in organizations focused on humanitarian aid such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Urban Forum (WUF).

The day-long seminar, held on October 11 in Tel Aviv University's Bar Shira Auditorium, featured keynote speakers from Israel and abroad, most notably Rony Adam, Director of the Department for UN Political Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The seminar was open to the public and advertised in the national newspapers, drawing participants from around the country.

The stately nature of the event, taking place in an immaculate auditorium with international speakers, could not quite obscure the unmentioned elephant in the room - Israel's relationship with the UN has for the most part been acrimonious at best. For many Israelis, the UN's 1975 resolution that "Zionism is a form of racism" has resounded as a theme in subsequent decades, a situation which may explain why, according to UNHCR representative Steven Wolfson, only two Israelis currently work in their Middle East offices.

Adam dismisses some Israelis' mistrust of the UN as unjustified and ignorant. "Israelis don't realize that there is more to the UN than the General Assembly," he told Metro. "Israelis think that the Middle East conflict is the only conflict. We need to look past our troubles to other countries."

Those countries, he argues, are aided by the UN humanitarian organizations that were represented at the seminar.

Contrary to Adam's assumption, however, antagonism was nowhere to be found in the audience, which for the most part consisted of casually-dressed young people from a cross-section of Israeli universities and cities. A significant number who were asked their motive for attending the seminar professed an eagerness to work or volunteer in developing countries.

Oscar Kirstein, a biologist who immigrated to Israel from Argentina, explained that he volunteered for a year in Guyana, Africa, and wants to return there to work in the field of public health. He is not alone in that wish: Maya Nelvizky, a Ben-Gurion University geography graduate, will soon be traveling with 10 other students to Tanzania and is interested in working for an NGO, orphanage or nursery school. Nelvizky also expressed interest in working with UNEP for the environment.

Political Science and Communications student Shani Yeshurun from Bar Ilan University is vehement about what she doesn't want, expressing a wish to work with refugees "anywhere but the Middle East," she stipulates, explaining, "because we're not objective here."

Despite the complex nature of Israel's relationship with the UN, most of the UN representatives chose to keep their talks more-or-less generic. For much of the time they could have been speaking anywhere, in any country in the world. The talks tended to focus on the organizations' infrastructure and the logistical details of online job applications - which apparently are a bureaucratic nightmare - rather than fanning the flames of idealism with details about the work and its effectiveness.

Lior (no surname given), an electrical engineer who attended the seminar but claims to have no interest in UN job opportunities, noted that the UN officials stressed their current needs and failures to measure up to a standard, rather than emphasizing their achievements. He sees this as a flawed approach to recruitment, commenting, "If I'm in Nairobi volunteering for a year, I want to know that it works."

The generic aspect of the recruitment was explained rather airily by Jacob Duer, a Senior Advisor in Human Resources for the UNEP, who discounted any idea that Israelis in particular have a unique contribution to make to humanitarian efforts. His reason for attempting to recruit Israelis is simple: for the sake of diversity (women are courted for UN jobs for the same reason).

That appears to be the party line, as Steve Wolfson of UNHCR asserts. However, Wolfson adds that his organization currently has a "severe shortage of Arabic-speakers," who are needed in order to work effectively with Arabic-speaking refugees. Wolfson admits that Israelis would not be safe in many countries in the Middle East, but claims that they would be useful in Amman, working with Iraqi refugees.

Refugees are a particularly resonant issue in Israel, as hundreds of refugees from Africa - especially Darfur - have reached the country in the past year. Wolfson addressed Israelis in particular, remarking in his lecture, "In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem you see people who don't look Israeli. We're aware of the generous efforts of Israel toward victims of conflict throughout Africa."

That generosity is even greater, Wolfson added, given the fact that some of the countries whose citizens Israel has aided claim to be at war with Israel. "Israel and the American Jewish community have a long history of involvement with UNHCR," Wolfson acknowledged, with Israel among the countries represented on their executive board for years.

The jobs on offer range from positions for lawyers to provide advocacy for refugees, to the more mundane pursuits of project managing and office administration. There are also internships available for recent university graduates who qualify.

Meanwhile, Adam is determined that the UN should attract more Israelis to its system of humanitarian organizations. According to Adam, progress is being made in the UN vis-à-vis its sentiments toward Israel, and he cites the Holocaust resolution of 2005 - which made denying the Holocaust illegal and was passed with a consensus - as an example of that progress. There is still work to do, he says, but it's to be done mainly by creating an alternate agenda to those who work against Israel, rather than confronting Israel's detractors directly.

"We want to change the image of the UN in Israel," states Adam, and goes on to claim that such a change would be for Israel's benefit. "If the image of the UN will change in Israel, the image of Israel will change in the UN."

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