The unmasking of the Red Cross

Published by "Mishpacha"

The Unmasking of the Red Cross

Debbie Maimon | Wednesday, February 18, 2009


One of the voices commanding the most media attention during the recent Israeli military action in Gaza was that of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Founded in 1863 and respected as the world’s foremost humanitarian agency, the Red Cross has won three separate Nobel Peace Prizes for its service to victims of warfare and natural disasters around the world. The organization’s stated policy of neutrality has gained it entry into war-torn regions and politically sensitive areas that are off limits to all other outsiders. 


But this powerful humanitarian organization has fallen far short of its ideals in the Middle East. The ICRC’s rush to judgment against Israel during its offensive in Gaza, as well as its one-sided anti-Israel rhetoric during previous Middle East flare-ups, has robbed the organization of any claim to impartiality.


The Red Cross has never protested the abduction and ongoing captivity of IDF soldier Gilad (ben Aviva) Schalit or Hamas’ refusal to allow Red Cross personnel to visit the hostage, as is customary and required by international law. The ICRC’s silence in the Schalit case is consistent with the group’s silence in the face of Hamas’ relentless missile and rocket barrages against Israeli towns, including the use of women and children as “human shields,” massacres of Palestinians suspected of “collaborating” with Israel and other Hamas atrocities. 


At the same time, the Red Cross routinely condemns Israel for “violations of international law,” revealing an ugly double standard. Red Cross pronouncements slamming Israel for refusing to allow relief workers into Gaza to rescue people trapped in the battle zone dominated the headlines during Operation Cast Lead. Geneva-based Red Cross leaders Jakob Kellenberger and Pierre Wettach scornfully dismissed Israel’s response that the IDF was forced to bar ambulances during military operations, and that it tried its utmost to avoid hitting civilians.


Red Cross officials also blamed Israel’s long-running blockade of Gaza for the lack of adequate medical supplies in Gaza’s hospitals to treat the wounded — a charge Kellenberger later rescinded.


As usual, the media lapped up the charges, which have fueled world outrage against the Jewish state and sparked anti-Semitic attacks around the world. Anti-Israel groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have used the Red Cross accusations to ratchet up their venomous attacks, and Palestinian groups have used them to call for “war crimes” trials against IDF commanders and field officers. 


The ICRC has since retracted some allegations. Jakob Kellenberger “clarified” for the New York Times that while the civilian situation in Gaza was still "dire," "the principal hospital was making do with supplies, and that doctors, working around the clock, were mostly coping with the flow of the wounded." He added that, "In general, the [doctors] did not complain about the lack of equipment or material." 


Kellenberger also volunteered that Israel, far from blocking his trip to Gaza as press reports had implied, had in fact facilitated it, and said he had seen “no evidence” that the IDF used white phosphorus on the civilian population of Gaza during Cast Lead. 


But none of these “clarifications” have had any mitigating effect on the wave of global condemnation engulfing Israel.


History of Discrimination 


Red Cross bias against Israel, Jews and Jewish symbols is nothing new. The organization has served as a mouthpiece for Palestinian grievances against Israel on a variety of issues, including Israel’s security fence aimed at preventing suicide attacks and the fierce condemnation of a 2002 battle in the Jenin refugee camp that Palestinians described as a “massacre.” Independent investigators subsequently found that no massacre was committed.


Nothing illustrates Red Cross hostility and contempt for Israel more vividly than the organization’s refusal, for sixty years, to admit Israel’s relief organization, Magen David Adom (MDA), into its ranks or its ongoing capitulation to Arab demands that the Jewish group use a red diamond instead of the Star of David.


During the 1950s, the International Committee of the Red Cross granted official recognition and membership status to relief groups that use other emblems, such as the Muslim Red Crescent and Persian Red Lion; but it refused to sanction the Magen David emblem as a protected symbol. Israel thus was faced with two options: accept the Christian cross or Muslim crescent as its emblem, or be excluded. It chose exclusion. 


The rejection of MDA was more than a refusal of status, equality, and the generous financial assistance granted to Red Cross sister agencies. It was also a refusal of protection. Hospitals, ambulances, and medical workers identified by a Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Lion (until the Iranian Revolution of 1979) are protected by international humanitarian law. By contrast, personnel and equipment identified by a Magen David are deprived of this safeguard. 


Thus, a bitter irony played out whereby the ICRC was sheltering Palestinian ambulances that were often used to transport terrorists and weaponry, while refusing protection to MDA ambulances rushing to aid the victims of terrorism.


Admitting Israel


The tide began to slowly turn in 1999, with the appointment of Dr. Bernadine Healy as president and CEO of the American Red Cross. Healy was infuriated by the blatant injustice of Israel’s exclusion from the ICRC. Almost immediately upon taking office, she took the bull by the horns.


 “We are a country that doesn't exclude. You don't belong to a country club that excludes blacks or Jews,” she told her board members. She noted that MDA had saved hundreds of thousands of lives — Jewish and non-Jewish — throughout its history, and added that in the previous decade, MDA had trained many members of the International Red Cross in emergency medical skills, ranging from basic first aid to complex trauma treatment.


Speaking at a Red Cross convention in Geneva, Healy said the exclusion of MDA is “a betrayal of the sacred principles of this movement and cannot be tolerated any longer,” who which Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga countered angrily, asking “If we're going to have the Shield of David, why would we not have to accept the swastika?"


Astounded at the comparison, Healy began to grasp that hostility to Israel was deeply embedded in the world body. Undeterred, she translated her views into aggressive action. She suspended American Red Cross dues payments to the international organization, amounting to $5 million annually or about one quarter of the ICRC’s annual budget, until the parent organization changed its policy toward Israel. Eventually, the withheld dues began to cut heavily into Red Cross programs and the organization finally indicated it was ready to negotiate.


But Healy’s courageous stand cost her her job. Healy lost a no-confidence vote by the America Red Cross board, who also voted to resume partial payment of dues to the Geneva organization.  The move undercut Healy’s authority and forced her to step down in 2001. Although Red Cross board chairman David McLaughlin protested that the board had not pushed Healy out. Standing beside him, Healy insisted, “I don’t think that’s true.”


Former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger called her departure “a tragedy for the American Red Cross and revealed that Healy had acted upon his advice in withholding ICRC dues. Eagleburger praised her single-minded stance with the world organization and decried the “weak people” who “succumbed to the blandishments of Red Cross apologists” and abandoned the idealistic stance of Dr. Healy.


“She rightly saw it for what it is… an immoral policy. One that looks and smells too much like a certain country’s infamous policies of the 1930's and 1940's,” he said. 


Hollow Victory


Despite Healy’s departure, the campaign she had begun acquired momentum. Geneva continued to drag its feet, but American pressure finally produced results. Israel’s MDA was admitted to the International Red Cross in June 2006 when the all 189 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies voted on the matter. 98 groups voted in favor, 27 against and 10 abstained. 


Uultimately, however, it was a hollow victory for Israel. The international organization rejected the Star of David emblem, and Israel was forced to agree to place its red star inside a new emblem—a red square—when operating in countries outside its own borders. In countries that object to the Magen David emblem, Israel had to agree to use the red square alone when delivering relief.


Many observers criticized the deal, saying that forbidding the symbol of Judaism while admitting Christian and Islamic symbols were rank anti-Semitism. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that “it is a disgrace that the Star of David, which symbolized the faith that spawned both Christianity and Islam, is excluded.” The New York Sun called their editorial on the issue “The Hate that Endures.”


“Press releases were flooding the wires yesterday exulting in the news that Israel's Magen David Adom [would finally gain admission] to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” The Sun wrote. “But it wasn't actually the red Star-of-David symbol that the signatories endorsed.


“No, instead of allowing the actual symbol used by the Israelis, the diplomats forged a compromise by which a red square would be added to Israel’s ambulances [operating outside the borders of Israel]… what this means is that ambulances displaying just a red Star of David won't be protected on international missions. It's an illuminating moment, reminding us of the hate that endures for Jews and the Jewish State.”


Holocaust-Era Failure


The saga of the Red Cross’ exclusion of Israel recalls a far more shameful chapter of ICRC history that took place during the Holocaust.


For over 50 years, the International Red Cross, the only outsiders allowed into Nazi concentration camps before Germany’s surrender in May, 1945, denied public access to its records of how it dealt with the worst onslaught against humanity that civilization has ever known.


In the late 1990s, as governments and nations across the world began reassessing their responses during the Holocaust, the Red Cross, too, was finally pressured into opening its vaults. In 1997 the organization turned over nearly 25,000 documents to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington for public viewing.  An even greater trove of 60,000 documents was turned over to Israel.


According to the Los Angeles Times, a top Red Cross official acknowledged the organization’s “moral failure” in keeping silent while the Nazis killed 6 million Jews.


“Very clearly, the ICRC’s activities with regard to the Holocaust are sensed as a moral failure,” said George Willemin, director of archives for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. “The ICRC admits — yes — that it has kept silent with regard to the Holocaust.”


International Committee of the Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga (author of the “swastika” comment above) echoed those sentiments. “Believe me, every moment spent today on our humanitarian responsibilities to assist the victims of war and political violence reminds me of our institution's moral failure with regard to the Holocaust,” he told news correspondents. 


The massive organizational failure of the Red Cross during those years has still not been thoroughly probed. But with the turning over of thousands of previously classified documents from that era, much new information has surfaced — casting the organization in a deeply unsavory light.


Shattered Myths


The Holocaust revelations shattered time-honored perspectives about the esteemed world body. Throughout World War II the Red Cross seems to have been unconcerned about the incarceration of thousands of non-combatants. Furthermore, documents from the time paint a portrait of the Red Cross as an organization paralyzed by timidity and indecision and that was all but impotent in the face of crisis. 


In addition, the documents reveal an incredible gullibility on the part of the Red Cross, a willful blindness and susceptibility to Nazi lies and deceit.


“The Red Cross was totally taken in by German tricks,” said Holocaust historian Henry Feingold. “The Germans perfected a technique whereby they displayed a sanitized portion of a ghetto or concentration camp to visiting Red Cross officials.  In the meanwhile, on the back road, the prisoners were all being shipped to the gas chambers.”


Much of the information in the documents makes the Red Cross look not only tragically foolish and inept but actually collaborating with the Nazis. 


For example, in September 1944 Red Cross delegates visited a restricted portion of Auschwitz under the escort of Nazi officials. About one million people already had been murdered there, experts say, and gassings would continue, uninterrupted through the end of November 1944.


Later the Red Cross reported that one camp prisoner told them “of a very modern shower room in the concentration camp where the internees are reportedly gassed in large groups … But it was impossible to verify anything.”


“We had the feeling,” wrote the Red Cross official, “that everything was being shrouded in mystery, that things were being kept a dark secret.” Despite the prisoner’s information, and their own suspicions, the Red Cross did nothing to pursue the truth.


Torture, gassing, murder, and cremations continued in Auschwitz unabated. As many as 4 million people, more than one million of them Jewish men, women and children, were murdered at Auschwitz from 1940–1945.


The ease with which the Red Cross allowed itself to be duped is highly suspicious, say historians. The implications — that their credulity masked something more sinister than mere naiveté — are hard to avoid.


Take the group’s report on the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. Nazi officials invited the Red Cross to visit the camp on August 14, 1940, after 56,000 people had already been murdered or died of starvation and disease.


But Red Cross workers wrote that camp conditions, appeared pleasant, and that inmates appeared healthy and well-treated and even praised the well-stocked prisoner library. “All the buildings are surrounded by flower beds and grass…giving the camp a happy note,” the report said. “It is evident the most modern means are being used here for treatment of prisoners.”


However, on April 17, 1945, several days after the camp’s liberation, the Red Cross returned to Buchenwald, this time with a shatteringly different picture.  


“The conditions of the camp are beyond description, absolutely miserable. Prisoners are packed in barracks, 2,000 per barrack, so that they have to take turns to sleep. The air was stifling, unbreathable. The prisoners have no latrines and are too weak to leave their bunks. Hundreds of individuals weighed no more than 55 lbs. They looked like skeletons.”


The report goes on to describe the crematoria as well as the mortality rate in the camp (after liberation) from disease and malnutrition. “The number of deaths is 500 a day.”


The later report makes no mention of the initial document issued five years earlier, containing words like “happy,” “healthy,” “well-treated” and more, nor is any attempt made to justify the organization’s naive acceptance of Nazi lies and deception. That willing gullibility killed all hope that the relief agency would intervene on behalf of the victims while it was still possible to save them.


“Nice … Warm … Unthreatening”


As further “proof” of their proper treatment of Jewish inmates, on June 23, 1944 the Nazis invited Red Cross delegates to visit Theresienstadt (also known as Terezin), in the former Czechoslovakia. They reported that the camp appeared “unthreatening,” and praised the “nice symphony orchestra,” and a “warm” café. One prisoner greeted Red Cross workers in a black suit and top hat, and at least 40 children performed a short opera for the guests.


That satisfied the investigators, who later praised the “humane environment” at the camp. In all, more than 33,000 people died at Terezin, including most or all of the children who appeared in the opera. Thousands more were sent to Auschwitz.


Failure to act


Not only did the Red Cross swallow whole the crude Nazi deceptions depicting “humane conditions” in the camps, they actually passed along this misleading information to the Allies, diluting the impact of the Jews’ pleas for help. Worse, even when the organization received clear evidence of atrocities taking place, it closed its eyes and failed to act.


Swiss historian Jean-Claude Favez, who conducted an 8-year review of the Red Cross records, says that even though the Red Cross knew by November 1942 about the Nazi’s annihilation plans for the Jews — and even discussed it with U.S. officials — the group did nothing to inform the public, maintaining silence even in the face of pleas by Jewish groups.


No one claims the Red Cross could have liberated the death camps. But they surely could have alerted the world — and those Jews still free — about the final solution being orchestrated against them.


Deliberate suppression of information of Nazi atrocities by both foreign governments and secular Jewish leaders made it easier for the rest of the world —governments, religious leaders and humanitarian groups like the International Red Cross — to stand by indifferently.


Swiss initiative


Because the Red Cross was based in Geneva and largely funded by the Swiss government, it was very sensitive to Swiss wartime attitudes and policies. On October 1942, the Swiss government and the Red Cross’ board of members vetoed a proposal by several Red Cross board members to condemn the persecution of civilians by the Nazis. For the rest of the war, the Red Cross took its cues from Switzerland in avoiding acts of opposition or confrontation with the Nazis. 


In the light of what we know today about the Switzerland’s role as financier and money-launderer for the Nazis during the Holocaust, the humanitarian failure of the Red Cross smacks of cowardice and collusion. 


True, the Red Cross officially had no legal authority to challenge Nazi Germany’s treatment of civilian prisoners. The Geneva Conventions, under which the organization operates during a war, did not allow for the protection or inspection of civilian prisoners.  It wasn’t until 1949 that civilians were officially included. 


Still, critics insist, in the midst of a mass murder operation, in the face of the enormity of the tragedy, the Red Cross should have risen above its pedantic concerns with legality, conventions and laws. Unfortunately, says historian Feingold, “they did not rise to the challenge. They lacked moral courage and simply ran scared.”


Heroic Exceptions


While the records mostly reveal ineptitude and failure, some inspiring examples of courage and morality do shine through, casting lone rays of light over a barren landscape. According to Red Cross documents, two Red Cross workers, using their wits and imagination and acting entirely on their own, saved thousands of Jewish lives. One, Friedrich Born, the Red Cross chief in Budapest, is credited by Yad Vashem with saving up to 11,000 Hungarian Jews.


After hearing reports in 1944 from four Auschwitz escapes about the daily gassing of thousand of Hungarian Jews in the camp, Born sprung into action. He obtained the official request of an abbot of a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery to place it under Red Ross protection from the Nazis. Born immediately housed nearly 1,000 Jewish children there.


He then took over the responsibility to look after about 7,000 Jewish children in sixty institutions in Budapest. He saved 7,500 of 50,000 Jews destined for Auschwitz and other death camps and created a Jewish Affairs Department of the Red Cross in Hungary where he employed hundreds of Jews and protected them from deportation.


Friedrich Born died in 1987, his story little known. Some time after his death, survivors publicized the details of his humanitarian activities and he was honored posthumously in Israel.


Another Red Cross worker, Rosli Naf, was a thirty-year-old nurse in 1942. She used her role with the Swiss Red Cross to arrange for forty-two Jewish children to leave a French concentration camp and then helped twenty-four of them escape to Switzerland.


Five of the teens were eventually caught. Two served jail time and were released; three were turned over by Swiss authorities to the Nazis. They were sent to Auschwitz and died there.


But even with regard to heroic actions, the Red Cross record is far from admirable. When German and French officials complained to the Swiss about Naf’s activities, she was fired from the Red Cross. Before her death at the age of eighty-five, Naf and Maurice Dubois, her Swiss Red Cross supervisor, were publicly honored by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.


The actions of these two upright individuals whose morality overrode bureaucracy point to a compelling and tragic conclusion; vast potential for rescue was available to the Red Cross during the Holocaust. Whether due to ineptitude, timidity, or outright complicity with the Nazis, that potential was ignored.




The International Committee of the Red Cross’ belated expression of remorse for its moral failure during humanity’s darkest hours does little for the victims. The test of genuine regret lies in the organization’s willingness to make different choices today. With the Jewish State facing down savage enemies bent on its annihilation, the Red Cross is positioned at the heart of an epic opportunity for self-redemption. History is watching.