Georgette F. Bennett, Ph.D. Georgette F. Bennett, Ph.D.
When I saw the magnitude of the Syrian crisis, Leviticus 19:16 kept reverberating in my brain: “Thou shalt not stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor cries out from the earth.”
Georgette F. Bennett
Why I Wrote : THOU SHALT NOT STAND IDLY BY:
To chronicle a man-bites-dog story, in which unprecedented and improbable partnerships between sworn enemies alleviated terrible suffering.
To tell a story of hope. If Syrians and Israelis can bridge their divides, there’s hope for conflicts everywhere.
To share my experience in finding an entry point for tackling an intractable tragedy.
Refugee policy has been driven by fear. I want to replace fear with facts in order to promote sensible and humane policies.
To reveal the geopolitics of humanitarian aid in all its complexity, so that well-intentioned people can find realistic ways to offer help.
To underscore the reality that far too many world figures simply refuse to acknowledge: most refugees can’t go home again and we MUST find solutions for them. Otherwise, our worst fears about radicalization will be realized.
To show that small organizations can be more fleet in the face of urgent needs. Government organizations are subject to bureaucracy and regulations that often hamper their efforts.
To illustrate in detail how and why humanitarian diplomacy “works”—and why it’s critical for dealing with disasters in the future.
To encourage others who want to tackle a crisis with no easy answers, but don’t know how – to help them find an entry point where they can make a difference.
Determined to Make A Difference? Here Are A Few Lessons Learned:
Find something in your own life that connects you to the problem you want to confront. People love to hear a personal story. Tap into that story when you’re trying to raise awareness and support. In my case, it was the experience of being a refugee, child of the Holocaust, and a victim of sexual assault.
Connect to set of principles that will guide your efforts. In my case, it was the core Jewish values of repairing the world and caring for the stranger.
Learn about the problem and identify a gap in needs. I started with a report issued by the International Rescue Committee and came up with the idea of engaging Israel because it shared a border with the four countries most affected by the Syrian crisis.
Come up with a plan for filling that gap, which doesn’t duplicate what everyone else working in that space is doing. In our case, we mobilized an multifaith network of partners, who brought their moral authority and constituencies to bear.
Focus narrowly, on do-able pieces that will allow you to have some impact. If you focus on the big picture, you’ll feel helpless. I focused on Syrian refugees – initially limited to Jordan – until we got our sea legs. We then expanded to Syrian war victims, both inside Syria and in the surrounding region.
Start with people in your network who are knowledgeable and bounce the plan off them. Get their help in implementing it. I started with the Israeli Consul-General in New York and the President of the International Rescue Committee. When that didn’t work out, I enlisted the Jordanian Ambassador to the UN and the head of the Joint Distribution Committee. They were my launch pads.
Don’t try to go it alone. I formed a large group of partner organizations. Our unique selling proposition is that we were offering multi-faith solutions.
If you don’t have money, start with mission-driven volunteers. Mine eventually became employees.
Don’t be shy about networking. Ask people to introduce you to people who will introduce you to people. Eventually, you’ll get to those that can move your plan forward. In my case, I was introduced to Israelis and Syrians who were at the front lines of delivering humanitarian aid.
Don’t give up if your first attempts fail. Our road was bumpy and we had to deal with turf battles, intercultural misunderstandings, betrayals, unfulfilled promises, and suspicion. But if one approach didn’t succeed, we poked around until we found another one that did. You need to be determined!
Make your case and build it on what’s practical and do-able. In our case, we pushed for using Israel as a staging area for the outbound delivery of international humanitarian aid. Prior to that, international efforts focused on political solutions that ignored one of Syria’s most powerful neighbors: Israel.
If you’re tackling a large scale crisis, use people-to-people diplomacy to get buy-in from the allies you need to be effective. That’s what we did for two years with Syrians and Israelis. It took a lot of courage for them to participate in these meetings. For Israelis, it was illegal and Syrians risked carrying a target on their back for meeting with the Israeli enemy. But those meetings defined our strategies and identified areas of partnership. Be prepared for setbacks and conflicting agendas. Remember: there must be some kind of win for all parties.
Be prepared for external events that force you to adjust your priorities. In our case, it was elections, shifting alliances, international treaties, and changing refugee quotas.
DO NOT take political positions or indulge in political rhetoric; just stay focused on the mission. Taking political sides damages one’s credibility as an honest and neutral broker. MFA once showed a film that we hadn’t fully screened and we got a lot of flack from the Orthodox Church where we held that event. The film was perceived as being anti-Assad and we had been insensitive to the fact that Christians felt protected by Assad in Syria. Nevertheless, at the end of this book, I call out Assad as a butcher of his people.