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Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Henri Dunant—the Red Cross founder who brought humanitarian laws to the battlefield. It is doubtful, though, whether the world’s first Nobel Peace prize recipient would today still feel at home in his organization, or in similar human-rights bodies for that matter.
It’s not just Dunant’s Christian faith, which played an instrumental part in his humanitarian work, that would be at odds with today’s post-Christian Red Cross officials. In the same small reformed church that commemorated his death last week, Dunant first learned about social responsibility as well as spiritual discipline.
But what would make Dunant really suspect in the eyes of modern human-rights activists is the fact that he was a Zionist. Already in 1867, almost 30 years before Theodor Herzl published "Der Judenstaat," his vision of a Jewish state, Dunant backed Jewish immigration to their ancestral homeland in Palestine. Dunant was one of only a few gentiles to attend the first Zionist congress in Basel in 1897. As was the case with other past Christian social reformers, like William Wilberforce 100 years before him and Martin Luther King 100 years after him, Dunant’s support for the revival of the Jewish state went hand in hand with his work for other social causes.
What a paradox that Dunant’s Red Cross would later develop cozy relationships with Israel’s enemies. The Red Cross has hosted Hamas activists at their base in Jerusalem instead of clearly distancing itself from their murderous policies. Not until 2006 did Israel’s Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) enjoy full membership, and that was only after the U.S. threatened to pull out of the world organization. Even now, Israeli rescue teams abroad would still need the host country’s permission to wear the Red Star of David.
The Red Cross is thus dangerously close to those non-governmental organizations with little public accountability that wage a "soft war" against Israel. Nowhere is this battle to delegitimize the Jewish state more present than in Geneva, the city where Dunant founded the Red Cross.
At Geneva’s United Nations Human Rights Council, Israel is being singled out for criticism by the world’s worst human-rights violators, such as Sudan, Iran and Libya. These regimes are applauded and supported not only by dubious NGOs funded by Arab countries, but also by Western NGOs with seemingly impeccable reputations. One of these groups is the World Council of Churches, a bit further up the road from the U.N., which blames Israel alone for the conflict while playing down Palestinian terrorism. The organization founded as a reaction to the silence of the Protestant churches during the Holocaust seems to consider attacking the Jewish state one of its foremost moral obligation.
The story of Henri Dunant’s Red Cross is not much different from that of another important humanitarian group—Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year Robert Bernstein criticized the organization he helped found for its biased criticism of Israel, saying HRW had lost "critical perspective" on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The organization spends a disproportional amount of its resources denouncing the Middle East’s only true democracy. At the same time it neglects to highlight the human-rights violations and aggression of Israel’s enemies, which would more properly correspond with its intended mission of prying open closed societies.
Perhaps the international class of humanitarians should pause for a moment and reflect on how they ever got to this Israel obsession. It’s time to return to the values of people like Henri Dunant and Robert Bernstein.
Mr. Sandell is the founding director of the European Coalition for Israel.