If you have not heard of, seen, or read the book, Roadblock to Peace, by David Bedein, do so immediately. It is a remarkable piece of work and essential reading for all those involved in Israel advocacy. This book is a primer on how the United States and the United Nations are supporting armed conflict with Israel through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA). UNRWA (founded in 1949) is a UN agency established specifically to provide direct relief and work programs for Palestinian refugees. It was a response to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who left their villages during Israel’s war of independence in 1948.
The circumstances surrounding UNRWA’s founding and the role of the United States’ funding of it are key to why I so strongly recommend Roadblock to Peace for those involved in Israel advocacy. For starters, the United States (of about 20 countries) is the largest contributor to UNRWA, providing almost $248 million annually or about 30% of its budget. American citizens should be very concerned about spending such a sizable percentage of the U.S. foreign aid budget on this one organization.
Given both that the organization was specifically founded to aid displaced Arabs and the American role in supporting the programs, one would think that a great deal would have been accomplished in the last 65+ years to resettle the displaced population and assist them in creating new lives for themselves. Throughout history many peoples have been displaced, had to migrate to new countries, and there successfully rebuilt their lives. However, for a number of reasons, UNWRA has not worked on behalf of the people it was established to serve, but instead has focused on keeping the original refugees and their descendants for several generations in an unsettled homeless situation.
Bedein has thoroughly researched the subject and provides not only the complete background to the development of UNWRA but also an analysis of its funding and the political role in plays in perpetuating the unfavorable living conditions of the Palestinians, who are being miss-served by the organization. As you read through the book, you will clearly come to understand that, early on, UNWRA ceased being a welfare and relief organization and became instead an organ for the political aspirations of the Palestinian refugees.
UNWRA did more than merely emphasize the refugee status of the displaced Palestinians; its formal and informal educational institutions became involved in inciting discontent and violence, instead of helping these people create productive lives even under difficult situations. Bedein documents how misappropriated funds were used freely with no accounting for their use or accountability to the donor states, such as the United States. In the latter sections of the book, he documents how the educational programs sponsored by UNWRA use materials that incite hatred and work against any peace discussions or agreements.
So why, specifically, should Israel advocacy groups read this book, and what use does it have for their purposes and programs? First and foremost, those involved in advocacy are continually meeting and holding discussions with elected officials in the U.S. Congress. Given that the United States is donating 30% of UNWRA’s budget, elected officials should have a very clear picture of how the funds are being used. This information is particularly important for the congressional committees involved in foreign affairs and allocations of foreign aid or to the UNWRA.
When the staff and volunteer leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella organization, or of local Jewish Community Relations Councils meet with their representatives it would be appropriate not only to quote the facts discussed in the book but they should consider providing copies of the book to the relevant elected officials. The same would hold true for other nonprofit organizations advocating for Israel in the United States and in Canada (which provides close to $15 million annually to UNWRA). By not conveying the facts documented in the book, advocates are missing opportunities to help others understand the complicated nature of the relationship between UNWRA and the terrorists involved in the present conflict with Israel.
If there had been proper oversight and better accountability of the use of their funds, the countries donating to UNWRA might have either ceased funding programs that incite terror or initiated social welfare programs that truly met the welfare needs of the Palestinian refugees and improved their lives. That, unfortunately, has not been done.
Advocating for the dissemination of this important information might lead to a change in how foreign aid is allocated to the Palestinians, who desperately need their lives improved. In light of the present military conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, reading this book is a must for all Israel advocates in the philanthropic community.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.