Israel has never been a country which simply looks out for itself, although that would certainly be a full time job. Since its inception, Israel has sought out ways to help others. Humanitarian aid efforts range from the local, like coming to the aid of beleaguered residents of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanese border, or driving Palestinian children to life-saving medical treatments, to the international, like providing aid to countries struck by a natural disaster.
MASHAV, under the auspices of Israel's Foreign Ministry, is the official department in charge of international aid efforts. But there are many other organizations, some governmental and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which provide much-needed relief throughout Israel, and throughout the world.
Magen David Adom is Israel's national emergency medical service. Established in 1930 with a single branch in Tel Aviv, the service soon extended throughout the country. In 1950, the government made MDA's status as the national emergency service official. MDA is overwhelmingly staffed by volunteers, both in administrative and medical capacities, though it employs a medical staff of approximately 1,200. MDA was not granted membership in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement until 2006, due to controversy over the use of the Magen David ("Shield of David"—the Israeli star) as its emblem.
The MDA, in addition to providing medical service for car accidents, heart attacks, and other "routine" emergencies, has been at the front lines after a terrorist attack hits Israel, caring for the wounded victims. The humanitarian organization Zaka, with a volunteer staff of approximately 1,000, works alongside MDA and other emergency services in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Zaka is known for protecting the sanctity of the human body, and gathers body parts and spilled blood for a proper burial according to Jewish tradition.
Below is a sampling of some of the many organizations in Israel, nearly all staffed by volunteers, dedicated to improving the lives of Israel's own citizen, and citizens around the world:
Israel Flying Aid was founded in 2005 to help people around the world who are suffering from natural disasters. IFA provides assistance in the areas of food, medical aid, and post-trauma services. IFA assists countries in which a disaster has struck, no matter what, even if those countries are hostile to Israel, such as Iraq and Pakistan. Their pledge, according to their website, is to provide needed assistance to, "the victims of the disasters, and not to their countries, governments, militia, or military, that may prevent international assistance to victims." In fact, the IFA targets areas which other disaster-relief organizations may stay away from, including those deemed "complex regions" in which the UN Red Cross is denied entry (like Russian-occupied Georgia). In August 2008, IFA sent a team to Georgia to provide relief following the bloody conflict between Georgia and Russia. In May 2008, in the aftermath of the cyclone in Myanmar, IFA volunteers risked their life, entered the country, and provided basic food and shelter for approximately 55,000 people.
Israel La'ad (Israel Forever), is a humanitarian relief organization founded in 2004 by a group of businessmen. The goal of the group is to improve the standard of living for underprivileged groups in Israeli society. The "Feed the Hungry" program delivers close to 700 "Shabbat Baskets" every Thursday, mainly to elderly, isolated members of the community, many of whom are Holocaust survivors. The "Ride for Pride" and "Afternoon Learning Centers" were established to motivate at-risk youth to stay in school and integrate into Israeli society. When the town of Kiryat Shmona was being terrorized by rocket attacks from Lebanon, Israel La'ad supplied emergency air raid shelters with the necessary provisions.
Way to Recovery was established by the Israeli-Palestinian Forum of Bereaved Families in 2006. Volunteers coordinate paperwork and drive Palestinian patients from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to medical centers in Israel. Many of the patients are children, without access to proper medical treatments in their hometowns and rely on the transportation to receive often life-saving treatments.
Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, has a branch in Israel dedicated to improving health care, education, youth institutions and land development. The organization founded the Hadassah Medical Center in Israel, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for its treatment of all patients, regardless of religious and ethnic differences. In 2007, a medical team from the Ein Kerem branch of Hadassah Hospital traveled to Kazakhstan to treat nearly 100 children infected with HIV/AIDS.
Also on the international front is the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR). The JCDR is a coalition of Jewish organizations which provide disaster relief around the world. For example, in 2005, the JCDR established the Jewish Coalition for Asia Tsunami Relief, raising close to one million dollars earmarked for rehabilitating medical facilities, providing medical services, and supporting fishing communities which were devastated by the tsunami. The coalition also raised money for El Salvador following an earthquake in 2003 and for Ethiopia during the severe food shortage at the beginning of the millennium.
The International Jewish Healthcare Organization is comprised of medical professionals from Israel and around the world. The volunteers travel to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to assist Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike. They provide seminars and lectures in those countries in order to bring the local medical care to a higher level. During the Soviet era, the medical schools were well-funded, and hospitals were equipped with modern equipment. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the medical system has fallen into disarray. Instead of sending doctors to perform one-shot procedures, or sending expensive equipment that the local doctors are unable to maintain, IJHO focuses on education, raising the level of medical knowledge and subsequently, the standard of medical care. For example, few Russian women were taking folic acid, which reduces the risk of neurological complications in infants. IJHO discussed a project in which women of child-bearing age would be given this crucial vitamin. Other topics covered are prenatal care and care of the elderly.