ICRC admits Israel and Palestine

According to this morning’s news, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent had admitted the Israeli Magen David Adom and Palestinian Red Crescent Society as full members, following the final passage of a text allowing the new “red crystal” symbol. The red crystal looks to me like a red Renault logo, but I guess at least it doesn’t have much religious significance for anybody.

Al-Jazeera is reporting that Tunisia and Pakistan tried to get an amendment passed identifying East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Red Crescent. According to Israel’s Y-Net, the amendment failed 72 to 191 and the vote for admission was ultimately 54 against to 237 for.

This should put an end to one of the lamest episodes in the history of semiotics.

Insistence by early Red Cross societies that the cross was merely a variation on the Swiss flag, and had no religious significance, went over poorly with Islamic states in the first half of the 20th century. Finally, in order to get the ICRC running at all, they had to accept three protected symbols. (The third was the Red Lion used by Iran before the Islamic revolution in 1979.) This should have been a warning that the meaning of symbols is not something under the control of a small group of Swiss gentlemen, no matter how often they insist on it.

The problem is that if you allow three symbols, why not four, or five, or any number? India and the Soviet Union expressed objections to the Red Cross and Crescent on precisely religious grounds. Although they backed down in the end, Israel did not. The ICRC tried to draw the line at three, and to be firm about it, but this worked about as well as it ever does. I’ve never thought it likely that the ICRC suffered from any particular anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli bias, simply the stubbornness of a bunch of guys atop a slow moving bureaucracy who fail to understand that meaning is not something that can be dictatorially assigned.

This should serve as a warning to those who imagine things only mean what they say they mean.

8 thoughts on “ICRC admits Israel and Palestine

  1. A lame dispute indeed, as the cross used as the Red Cross symbol (and on the Swiss flag) looks nothing at all like a crucifix.

  2. Scott,

    I still find it hard to understand why a Red Crescent was/is acceptable (to assuage religious objections) but not a Red Star.

    From Wikipedia:

    ‘In her March, 2000 letter to the International Herald Tribune, doctor Bernadine Healy, then president of the American Red Cross, wrote: “The international committee’s feared proliferation of symbols is a pitiful fig leaf, used for decades as the reason for excluding the Magen David Adom – the Shield (or Star) of David.”‘

  3. Chris, because at the time the ICRC’s founding documents were written, there were a number of Islamic states already using the symbol, and failure to acknowledge it would have ended the Red Cross as a universal institution. The decision was pragmatic.

    I think that decision was a mistake. I think they should have been prepared in the 40’s to accept a broader notion of what constitutes a protected symbol. They should have let India have its Red Swastika and let the Soviets have something more to their tastes, and they should have let Israel have the Magen David. They should have recognized that the cross and crescent already had religious significance that repetition of its neutrality could not make go away. Either they should have constructed a third symbol then, allowed a mixture of symbols including national and international ones, or come up with an alternative solution.

    At the time, the rules not only allowed only three possible protected symbols, they forbade using them in conjunction with other symbols. Israel could not even have used the Magen David in conjunction with the cross or the crescent.

    In the same way, I think it was asinine for Israel to refuse to use either the cross or the crescent. All the other parties backed down. Israel would undoubtedly have been admitted had it done the same. Would it have killed them to use the Red Cross? Heck, they might even have scored a few political points if they’d said “in recognition of our Arab minority and national Hebrew-Arabic bilingualism, we will use the Red Crescent as a protected symbol.”

    I am inclined to lay blame on both groups for stubbornly taking positions that were difficult to back down from.

    As for the claim that the ICRC is somehow specially anti-semitic or anti-Israel, it just doesn’t stand up. The idea that the ICRC should prevent any further proliferation of symbols isn’t insane, just stupid. But stupid in a bureaucratic, pedantic way, something amply credible in an international organization. At no time have there been enough national Red Cross organization s from states with deeply anti-Israel politics to prevent Israel from joining. However, between the communist and Buddhist states (and one Hindu state) who had been rebuffed in their efforts to get their own symbols, and the strong desire among the others (including the US until the 90s) to not reopen debates and rock the boat, there were always enough to keep Israel from joining unless it accepted the full terms of the organization’s charter.

    In 2000, the ICRC had a long history of cooperation with the MDA. Complaints from the MDA were few in the last decade. The American Red Cross, however, has had leadership with its own agenda. Ms Healy, for instance, publicly accused ICRC president Cornilio Sommaruga, a guy who had spent the entire 90’s trying to get the MDA into the ICRC, of anti-semitism when he asked her if she would accept letting India have a Red Swastika as a protected symbol. Healy apparently did not know that India has requested exactly that in the late 40’s. That suggests to me that she really did not understand anything about this dispute or its origins, and consequently anything she says about its causes is probably dismissible.

  4. In the same way, I think it was asinine for Israel to refuse to use either the cross or the crescent.

    I don’t know about the crescent, but for Jews the cross is probably the most hated and feared symbol next to the (Nazi) swastika, millions of them having been persecuted, tortured and slaughtered under its auspices over the centuries. To suggest that Jews could readily paint crosses on their ambulances is, to put it mildly, remarkably insensitive.

  5. And yet Jewish paramedics in the rest of the world seem to drive ambulances with red crosses on them just fine. The red cross is not a swastika. It is not a symbol aimed specially at Jews and it is not one that Jews in this day and age have any difficulty living with.

  6. Scott,

    You should follow your own advice here. For some Jews at least, the cross is a hated and feared symbol. As you so rightly said, “this should serve as a warning to those who imagine things only mean what they say they mean.”

    For example, in Israeli mathematics classes for a long time (and maybe even today), people didn’t use plus signs because they didn’t want to write crosses. They used a slightly different symbol instead.

    For many Jews, crosses aren’t a sign of medical care and healing, and they aren’t going to change their mind just on your say-so.

  7. Hektor, I have to question whether that has been a serious issue for any large number of Jews of late. In the 40’s, in the rush following the establishment of Israel, maybe, and even then, the anti-Jewish pogroms of the early 20th century were not as often conducted under the banner of the cross as various other, better known symbols.

    But in the 90’s?

    No, I’m not suggesting that the cross is just a sign of healing for Jews any more than for Muslims. But has it really been, in the 20th century, something so profoundly offensive to Jews that the very sight of it on the side of an ambulance carries an oppressive air? Almost as many Jews live in America as in Israel, where the cross is almost universally used in medical services, and there has never been a hint of fuss about it.

    I suppose it’s possible, but I still suspect there was a lot more intransigence than actual offense in the Israeli position.

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