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October 14, 2004

American Red Cross Seeks Image Rehab

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/american_red_cross_seeks_image_rehab_20041015

Howard Parmet is on a mission.

Parmet, community outreach consultant for the American Red Cross (ARC) of Greater Los Angeles, wants to build bridges to a Jewish community that has largely shunned the organization because of a belief that it is anti-Israeli at best and anti-Semitic at worst. Parmet wants to rehabilitate the organization's image, dispel misperceptions and recruit legions of local Jewish volunteers.

He has his work cut out for him.

For more than 50 years, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the ARC's parent, has excluded Israel from the world body while counting among its members Iran, Syria and other countries considered by many as state sponsors of terror.

The low esteem in which many local Jews hold the International Red Cross has colored their perception of the ARC, even though it has proven far more friendly to Israel. Because of those suspicions, Parmet said, the L.A. Red Cross has only a handful of Jewish volunteers, attracts little Jewish financial support and has but a single Jew on its 39-member board. Few, if any, Southland synagogues, Jewish day schools or Jewish community centers have made themselves available to the Red Cross as shelters in the event of an emergency.

Parmet, who worked in Jewish organizations for 32 years before accepting the newly created Jewish outreach position, aims to change all that. The former executive director for the American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI), Pacific Southwest region -- the fundraising wing of the Magen David Adom, (MDA) Israel's emergency response and disaster service -- said his first order of business was to dispel "misinformation" about the ARC. Toward that end, Parmet has run a series of ads in the Jewish media, including The Journal, to underscore ARC's close ties with MDA.

"You may have heard otherwise, but during the period when the Jewish community makes a point of examining relationships, the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles wants you to know the facts about our relationship," a full-page ad that ran in The Journal in Sept. 17 said. "...We wanted you to know that we are the best friend the Magen David Adom has."

Indeed, the ARC unilaterally recognized MDA as a Red Cross sister society in 1989. A year later, the ARC established the national Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center, which has documented the fates of 9,000 missing Jews and reunited more than 1,200 family members. The ARC has also withheld $25 million in administrative dues since 1999 to the International Red Cross to protest the world body's continued exclusion of MDA.

"The American Red Cross should not be punished. It does great work in the United States and is the MDA's greatest champion in the international forum," said Susan Heller Pinto, director for Middle East and International Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "Still, there are a lot of misperceptions out there.... We won't be satisfied until the MDA becomes a full-member of the International Red Cross."

In his six months on the job, Parmet has assembled a committee of prominent Jews to improve the local Red Cross' standing in the community. The group, which includes Rabbis Harvey Fields and Robert Gan, president of the Board of Rabbis, holds its first meeting Oct. 27. Eventually, Parmet said he envisions local temples and Jewish organizations offering the community CPR, first-aid classes and other training in their facilities, as well as opening them up to the public in emergencies such as fires and earthquakes.

Eric Book, a member of the local Red Cross' new Jewish committee, said he thought Parmet could succeed where others have failed. Book, a past regional president of ARMDI who worked alongside Parmet for several years, said his former colleague had the expertise, knowledge and ties to the local community to rehabilitate the U.S. Red Cross' image and garner Jewish support.

Book said Parmet proved himself an able executive at ARMDI, winning kudos for his creativity and effectiveness. He said Parmet helped put together golf tournaments at El Caballero Country Club that raised thousands for ARMDI; he produced a cable television program that promoted awareness about the organization, and Parmet helped win approval to place a MDA ambulance at the Zimmer Children's Museum to educate young people about MDA's importance.

In his first five years at ARMDI, Parmet said he helped boost fundraising by 400 percent. Over his 14-year tenure, he said he developed a broad range of relationships with Jewish philanthropists, synagogues and Jewish day schools, ties he hopes to leverage in his new position with the local Red Cross.

Parmet will need all the help he can muster to rehabilitate the L.A.-agency, even if its attitude toward MDA is far more enlightened than its parent's.

During World War II, the International Red Cross failed to rescue or assist Jews in Nazi concentration camps, although the organization knew of the atrocities, experts said. The international body has barred Israel's admittance on the grounds that the MDA uses a religious symbol, a red Shield of David, as its official emblem, even though the Red Cross employs the cross and Islamic crescent. Like the United Nations, the International Red Cross has attacked Israel, most recently for the construction of its security barrier, while remaining largely silent about suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on the Jewish state.

Despite the negative view many Jews have about the International Red Cross, Parmet said he thought his work would make a difference for the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

"This is a slow process of building a relationship and developing trust and spreading information," Parmet said. "It's going to take a significant amount of time, but it's going to be done."

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