Sunday, 13 July 2008

Friends in need are friends indeed

It’s a chilling scene, but one which has become all too familiar: the aftermath of a suicide attack. Piercing screams, motionless bodies, blood-soaked clothing and scattered objects. And it is followed closely by the wailing of a Magen David Adom ambulance. Ori Golan goes behind the scenes of Magen David Adom.

Magen David Adom, MDA (‘mada’), has become a symbol; a reassuring sign that help is on its way. This year alone, over 1300 MDA paramedics and over 400 MDA ambulances have been dispatched to help save the lives of over 600 casualties of terrorism. Since the start of the Intifada, more than 5000 casualties have been evacuated by MDA personnel; around 600 MDA vehicles, including intensive care ambulances, have been damaged, some irreparably.

Although it operates round the clock, every day of the year, Israel's emergency medical service receives no government funds; around 90 per cent of its workforce is made up of volunteers; and it relies largely on donations. Seventeen countries around the world have enlisted as ‘friends of MDA’.

Eli Benson is the executive director of MDA-UK. These have been difficult months for MDA, he says. "The current demands on MDA are enormous. Not only is MDA called out to unprecedented numbers of terrorist attacks, but the number of road accidents has soared as well." This, he stresses, is on top of the ‘routine’ calls to attend cases of heart attacks, collapsing buildings, or delivering babies.

The MDA office in London is a small, simple office, staffed by four paid assistants and a coterie of volunteers. "I am a great believer in volunteering," explains Benson. "I’m happy to work with whoever; I don’t care about their age." The reverential tone with which he pays tribute to the pensioners who contribute their time to MDA is no doubt a reflection of his Indian heritage where age is accorded with respect.

Benson, 56, is cheerful, chatty and charming; the sort of person you warm up to instantly. He is also a dapper fund-raiser and a restless organiser, with a 30–year track-record of fund raising for different Jewish-related causes. He was responsible for negotiating the rescue of Jews from Sarajevo in 1992 and oversaw the covert shipment of essential medicine into the Bosnian capital at a time when it was impossible to get aid in. Benson will be forever remembered by the besieged community of Sarajevo for his ravioli: he sent three truckloads of canned meat ravioli which kept them alive for a very long time.

"When I was young" he recalls, "I never donated to MDA. What do you want - I’d not even heard of MDA although it’s been in the UK since 1950."

As soon as he walked into MDA-UK, three years ago, he set about promoting its image and embarked on an extraordinary PR campaign, taking it out to the masses. Benson has not only raised the profile of MDA-UK but has turned around the charity’s takings: from a constant annual taking of £0.5M, it now stands at £4M. "We found a formula which works: we invite our big sponsors to a wonderful charity dinner-concert at a top venue, charge them a lot to get in and even more to get out."

Charity may begin in the homes of the rich, but it doesn’t end there. MDA-UK organises Business Network lunches and Benson himself goes to primary schools, universities, synagogues and youth movements, to explain and promote the charity’s objectives. He has also set up local sub-committees throughout the UK: in Manchester, Birmingham Cambridge, Sheffield or Hull, there are charity events organised to raise money for defibrillators, ambulances or any other specific needs of MDA.

Israelis are not covered by national health insurance for MDA services. Individuals, as well as municipalities are charged for this medical service. Often there are reels of red tape before the money is recuperated. Netanya municipality has defaulted on its dues to MDA and the organisation is currently pursuing it through the courts. The government, which covers terrorist-related emergency services, owes MDA 40 million shekels. These setbacks, says Benson, have had serious, tangible consequences: MDA has had to stop training new paramedics and has suspend all refresher courses for existing staff.

Benson is a pragmatist. "Of course this is wrong, and the situation needs to be changed, but meanwhile services need to be provided". And this is where friends of MDA step into the breach.
There are approximately 90 MDA stations dotted across the length and breadth of the country, most of which have been sponsored by overseas friends of MDA. "This year" affirms Benson "we sent over 30 ambulances. Each ambulance costs at least £40600."

MDA-UK donated the only four-bed blood mobile unit which moves throughout the country collecting blood and screening it. Last October the charity opened a new MDA station at Makor Haim, in south Jerusalem, and recently they inaugurated a station in Shlomi, on the northern border. "In emergencies", stresses Benson, "every minute counts and we’re cutting down the response time. We’re about to fund a $5M satellite program which will allow MDA to know where every ambulances is precisely and direct them where they need to go."

The situation in the country has had an enormous impact on the friends of MDA-UK. Leaving their political differences aside, they have rallied around Israel like never before. It’s the political differences, which, Benson – whose family was saved by Muslims in India – insists must be left aside. "MDA is a non-sectarian, non-governmental charity. When MDA steps in, politics goes out."

"When the Intifada began, most of the casualties were Palestinians. MDA dispatched ambulances to treat the Palestinians. Often the rioters seeing the Magen David on the ambulances would start pelting them with stones; 80 of our ambulances have been badly damaged and 12 medics have been injured. It took the Palestinian Red Crescent to save their lives.

"MDA staff are old and young, religious and secular, immigrants and sabras. MDA has Arab medics who are excellent, and it has a good relationship with the Red Crescent with whom they carry out joint training. Whether you’re Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, there is absolutely no distinction. "

In addition to being an ambulance service, MDA is a relief service offering international aid. MDA-UK also donates to international causes. The charity sent £100,000 worth of medical goods to Turkey following the earthquake there. In Kosovo MDA-UK struck a deal with the Bulgarian Red Cross and gave them a trainload of clothes to distribute to the refugees.
But while MDA is a relief service like the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, it has never been accepted as a full-fledged member of the movement. This is because the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) only recognises the red cross and red crescent as emblems that can be used to protect the medical services of armed forces. Because MDA insists on the Star of David as its emblem, Israel has been denied membership.

The issue of MDA’s exclusion from the ICRC is still a source of deep controversy. Few know this better than Dr. Bernadine Healy, president of the American Red Cross.

Healy appealed on Israel’s behalf to join the International Red Cross. When the ICRC refused, she responded by withholding American Red Cross annual dues to the ICRC, totalling $10M. It caused a furore, but she remained adamant: no inclusion of MDA, no money.

On September 12 last year, a day after the terrorist attacks on America, leaders of American Muslim organizations joined the line of blood donors to show their solidarity with America’s victims. Healy came out to thank them for setting such a good example to their community. Seizing the opportunity, she asked the Muslim leaders to support MDA’s full membership in the ICRC. The leaders, caught unawares, replied that this was no time for politics. She pressed them, but they still refused. They returned to their respective communities livid. This single-minded dedication to Israel’s cause cost Dr Healy her job: six weeks later she was forced to resign.
In November next year, the issue of MDA membership is due to be discussed at an international conference, where a neutral emblem may be adopted.

Meanwhile, sponsorships for MDA in the UK have come almost exclusively from Jewish benefactors, in contrast to Germany and the Netherlands where support for MDA comes predominantly from non-Jewish sponsors. Why is that?

"There is definitely an anti-Israel trend here in Britain. The media is blatantly anti-Israel. The BBC is certainly no friend of Israel. This obviously impacts on the public’s perception. On the other hand, the Jewish community is showing its solidarity with Israel and standing strong. Whenever I am questioned on this matter I say: if you want to deal with it [anti-Israel bias] do what I do: write to them and complain. I complain as Eli Benson, not as Chief Executive of MDA."

So, if I have a £20 note in my pocket, why should I donate it to Magen David Adom? He smiles benignly: "Because it saves lives".

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