A light among the nations

Israel's far reaching humanitarian efforts at home and across the globe.

Home sweet home With more than three million new immigrants absorbed since the creation of the state in 1948, this country's biggest humanitarian relief effort is most certainly the resettling of these Jews. While some of the new immigrants came here voluntarily to fulfill the Zionist dream, a great majority looked to Israel as a safe haven, an escape from extreme xenophobia, persecution or poverty in their native lands. In the early years of the state, Jewish communities arrived here en masse from Arab lands such as Yemen and Morocco, not forgetting those who came prior to the state's foundation from the rubble of Europe and the aftermath of Nazi atrocities. Later, in the 1990s, there were the million or more Soviet Jews escaping to freedom of expression here. More recently, we have seen communities from Ethiopia and even remote parts of the former Soviet Union and India gathering their belongings and heading home. Of course the resettling of so many cultures and communities has not always been easy or straightforward, and many groups of immigrants would decry the transit camps and development towns they were directed to until the 1960s, but building up such a diverse population in such a short space of time with so few natural resources has not been accomplished on such a scale anywhere else in the world. Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski, a former mayor of Ra'anana, cites the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union as among the most "heroic" immigration periods for the state. "One specific time really stands out," he recalls. "Government minister Ariel Sharon called together a large group of mayors from various cities and said, 'Next month 30,000 people will be at the airport. Who can take them in, arrange accommodation and services for them?' Every place volunteered and not one person was left behind. It really was heroic. "The people of Israel really know how to open their hearts and their homes to new immigrants." Today, immigrants still flow into the country at a rate of roughly 20,000 a year and the state, together with a wealth of non-profit organizations and individuals, provides them with a wide range of mostly free services, including mortgage grants, free health care, career advice and social services. Humanitarian help worldwide In 1979, Israel sent a small delegation of medical staff to provide humanitarian aid and medical relief to thousands of displaced people in Cambodia following the downfall of communist leader Pol Pot. According to Prof. Dan Engelhard, head of the Pediatric Department at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Kerem, in Jerusalem, this mission was the first of many medical and humanitarian aid teams from Israel to provide assistance in areas of natural or man-made disasters. Engelhard, who in recent years has founded and facilitates the flow of Israeli volunteers to the Art-Joy-Love project for orphaned children with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, says Israel is "almost always one of the first countries to arrive on the scene." "We can work very, very fast and we can have immediate impact," says Engelhard, who after Cambodia went on to lead many medical missions, including running a pediatric field hospital in Rwanda during the 1994 Tutsi genocide, assisting ethnic Albanians during the Kosovo war in the late 1990s, helping in Turkey following the earthquake in 1999 and most recently in Thailand after the 2005 tsunami. Asked whether Israel should be prioritizing the needs of other countries in this way, Engelhard replies emphatically: "We cannot sit here and let children die of AIDS in Africa, for example, when we know there are treatments available. As doctors, we cannot allow ourselves to care if a person is Jewish or Muslim. All children have a right to live." Israel's international humanitarian relief efforts have come a long way since the initial mission to Cambodia. Today, the Foreign Ministry's Center for International Cooperation (Mashav) provides a wide range of humanitarian relief, as well as sharing technological developments with developing countries in the Third World. At the same time, IsraAID serves to coordinate the activities of Israeli and Jewish non-governmental organizations and more than 35 Israeli and Jewish organizations from many sectors pool their resources and provide a presence in some of the most troubled parts of the globe. Rallying for refugees While the country is still making up its mind about how to treat the thousands of African refugees who have arrived here in recent months, its track record for helping non-Jewish asylum seekers is certainly a mark of its humanity. Providing immediate shelter to some 66 homeless refugees from Vietnam, who became known as the "boat people," was perhaps Israel's shining glory. The initial group was picked up by an Israeli cargo ship on its way to Japan in June 1977 and three more groups followed when it became clear that the country was reaching out to help while other nations turned their backs. When the boat was discovered by the Israeli ship, the 66 on board had run out of food, they were dehydrated and extremely weak. The ship was lost and leaking, and despite their desperate SOS signals, ships from East Germany, Norway, Japan and Panama had already passed them by. The Israeli captain and crew immediately offered food and water and decided to bring all the passengers on board. From 1977 through 1979, Israel welcomed more than 300 Vietnamese refugees, and today there is a thriving Vietnamese community here. At the time, prime minister Menachem Begin told US president Jimmy Carter that "it was a natural act to us. We remembered, we never have forgotten, the boat with 900 Jews [the St. Louis] having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War... traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused... Therefore it was natural that my first act as prime minister was to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel." Since then, Israel has offered asylum to many more people from troubled nations, most notably in 1999 when a specially chartered Jewish Agency plane brought in 104 refugees from Macedonia, who lived on local kibbutzim for several years before returning to their homeland. Water to the Third World With expertise in agricultural development and technology, Israel's techniques are a perfect fit for countries struggling with immense population growth, lack of resources and constant famine. According to information from the Foreign Ministry, "Israel's agricultural production has increased twelvefold over the past 40 years... Today, Israel has a thriving agricultural export sector marketing a wide range of high value-added crops.," states the ministry's Center for International Cooperation (Mashav) on its Web site. "It is for this reason that many countries of the developing world have sought partnership with Israel in addressing their own agricultural challenges." While Mashav runs a range of services such as "eye camps" for cataract removal and other humanitarian aid projects worldwide, its agricultural program, which is managed by the Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation provides countries with the know-how to improve their farming economy and feed their people. Recently, Israel was accepted as a member of the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which serves as an interface between OECD member countries and other countries and provides them with a link to developing and emerging economies, so more Israeli help is definitely on the way. Israel also has a deal with the United Nations Environmental Program in Nairobi, Kenya, to help implement the "Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity Building." According to the agreement, Israel will assist the UN with its expertise in technology and water management in Africa and Asia in an effort to protect the environment. The NGO sector With this year's Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Exceptional Contribution to the Nation going primarily to women's groups and youth movements, any discussion of humanitarian work must also include this vibrant third sector of non-government organizations. The Woman's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), Na'amat and Emunah, the national religious women's organization, were three of the eight social welfare organizations to be selected for this prestigious honor. These three share their devotion to women's issues and have assisted many women to return to work, raise a family and protect their dignity. These organizations have also been heavily involved in pushing for gender equality and providing emergency relief aid to some of the country's neediest families. While these are some of the more high-profile NGOs operating in the country, the non-profit sector spends more than NIS 80 billion a year and employs more than 365,000 people or 15% of the total labor force. There non-profits help in almost all areas of society from soup kitchens to feed the poor through educational-based programs to help immigrant children. According to a recent study by the Israeli Center for Third Sector Research, which was authored by the center's Dr. Hagai Katz and based on various sources including the Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 22,000 non-profits are active countrywide.