Sean Penn speaks out about humanitarian work on visit to Israel

Despite experiencing severe economic turmoil in the aftermath of its 2010 earthquake, Haiti is far from a lost cause, actor Sean Penn says in Tel Aviv.

Sean Penn. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sean Penn.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Often the denizens of Hollywood are mocked for the various humanitarian pet projects they take on, with many accusing celebrities of being disingenuous.
But when it comes to humanitarian relief work, actor Sean Penn is nothing but sincere.
That candid passion was on full display when he earnestly spoke about his NGO, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, at a conference coordinated in conjunction with IsraAID and the Pratt Foundation.
“Our mission was to spend a few weeks in Haiti as a 24/7 delivery service for drugs for the hospitals that needed them,” Penn told the audience in Tel Aviv on Monday, explaining his initial plans when he arrived in the country that was torn apart by carnage and destruction due to its 2010 earthquake.
The NGO’s mission quickly transcended that singular purpose and became a significant organization providing long-term relief to the victims.
As part of its work, J/P HRO worked closely with IsraAID to establish a child education center in the Petionville refugee camp, in Port-au-Prince.
This is the two-time Academy Award winner’s first time in Israel, where he arrived last night on El Al from New York, in order to deliver the conference’s keynote address.
The conference also featured comments from the Foreign Ministry’s representative of Central and South America and the Caribbean, a former IDF chief medical officer and IsraAID founding director, Shachar Zahavi.
Penn lavished praise on the Israel-based NGO, which is world renowned for its immediate response to global emergency situations. “Their logistics was just more sound, and sincerity in purpose was more complete,” Penn said, admiring the organization’s penchant for singling-out each one of its members and seeing what unique added value they could contribute on an individual basis.
“The indirect impact of IsraAID is that everything that JP/ HRO has accomplished would not have existed without the inspiration and support that they provided,” he added.
MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) also spoke fondly of the organization when he addressed the audience earlier that morning.
Oren praised the organization for embodying the concept of tikun olam – the Jewish belief in one’s personal obligation to serve humanity for the better.
“Organizations like IsraAID combine [both] the spirit of the Jewish people and serving humanity - it is the ultimate symbiosis between the two,” he said.
The former Israeli ambassador to Washington also took a moment to address Penn directly and thanked him for his dedication to the Haitian people. “You were the first around, you provided vital medical supplies to people, you began the process of rebuilding,” Oren said. “It wasn’t as if your job was done and you just went somewhere else – you made a commitment to the people of Haiti. We share that goal. As a member of the Jewish people, I say to you, toda raba. Thank you.”
It was his relief work during hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, that inspired Penn to intervene in Haiti.
Katrina taught him that NGOs, not governments, must answer the call in such emergency crises.
“I, like so many people, made the assumption that governments take care of these things and we’ll be in the way,” Penn said, of his initial reaction when seeing the chaos that prevailed in New Orleans at the time.
“But after a few days, it just didn’t seem like the government were taking care of these things. And by the way, what I learned overtime, is that they can’t,” he asserted. “The chaos of a natural disaster, the physics of conflict dynamics, create challenging circumstances every day in different ways and in different regions.”
Despite the massive destruction, poverty and violence that have ensued in Haiti before the earthquake and since, Penn has faith that the country can – and should – persevere.
Revealing a complex $300 million re-forestation project his NGO hopes to launch next year, Penn believes that Haiti can crawl out of its economic nightmare if it garners the right support. More details about that project will be announced Saturday at the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris.
“I encourage everyone in this room to visit Haiti,” Penn concluded. “It’s a special place and it’s such a doable enterprise. This is not rocket science. It’s an hour and a half from Miami Beach... it is sitting there full of talent and energy. We started, IsraAID started, I’d like you all to start.”