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In the political annals of New York, the 1990s boasted a strong presence of women not only in government but also at the United Nations. One such woman, Ruth Messinger, served as Manhattan borough president from 1990 to 1998, with time out in 1997 to run for mayor of New York City on the Democratic Party ticket. She had hoped to deny the incumbent Republican hard-liner, Rudolph Giuliani, a second term (unsuccessfully, it turned out).
At the UN, among other strong women, Carol Bellamy, a former New York City Council president, was executive director of Unicef; and the formidable Nafis Sadik, a Pakistani, was revolutionizing the UN Population Fund, or UNFPA, with a strong dose of women’s sexual rights.
Messinger views her political era as only one chapter in a life that was soon to take a sharply different turn. In 1998, with a pre-politics background in social work, she became president and chief executive officer of the American Jewish World Service, then a faltering international assistance organization based in New York.
“I came here when it was a tiny organization with a wonderful idea behind it — an organization ahead of its time,” she said in an interview in her Manhattan office recently. In 18 years, she and her team built the organization into a global presence, working in developing societies in 19 Asian, African and Latin American countries, currently with 500 projects in place, totaling $35 million annually in grants.
Globally, the service works closely with grass-roots groups on numerous issues, letting them decide what they need most. It has supported projects in countries as diverse as Cambodia, Afghanistan, Senegal and the Dominican Republic. It does not work in the Middle East.
“This organization has always been fierce about saying, We’re not putting staff on the ground,” she said. “We’re interested in finding the indigenous leaders and asking them what they want. And guess what? Very often, they want small amounts of money. They have a plan and they have a vision. Sometimes, they want to know, How do you do advocacy? Sometimes we tell them it’s going to take them a long time to ‘take over the mores’ of their country, but meanwhile they’re building for change.”
Now another chapter is beginning in Messinger’s life.
In late June, Messinger stepped aside as president of the American Jewish World Service to become the organization’s “global ambassador,” promoting women-centered, rights-based development. She will also serve on a World Bank interfaith task force, where she hopes to keep the focus on the rights of women and girls, who will be critical to the success of the new Sustainable Development Goals and peace-building in devastated societies. When the World Bank sought to broaden its interfaith work, long dominated by Christians of various denominations, the decision was made to add Jewish and Muslim members, “and we were sort of a logical place to call,” she said.
“The statistics are in,” she said. “Countries with better policies on women’s human rights do better on peace and security and on conflict resolution.” Land rights for women are a high priority for Messinger. So are LGBT rights and reproductive rights for all. Often, the reply from governments or sometimes the World Bank when fundamental rights are sought by local people, is that these may conflict with a national culture.
Messinger said she had a message for the World Bank about the negative effects of some of its macroeconomic development policies.
“When they say, we can’t do too much about human rights because there are 193 countries and there are 193 definitions of human rights. . . . Actually, if you ask the people who are trying to farm land that you are facilitating being stolen from them by hydroelectric power projects, they’re not interested in their country’s definition of human rights — they’re interested in holding on to their land.
“Women are amazing,” she said of the legal teams her organization has supported. “On land rights, in Mexico and Guatemala, we have women who are running the legal defense work. They’re trained as lawyers and they’ve recruited some other lawyers and paralegals. They teach them how to organize the farmers. There’s no question there what the women want. They don’t want the land sold out from under them. In Oaxaca, a mining company in one of the towns poisoned the water supply, and when the community rebelled, its leader was murdered. We lost a land rights activist in Honduras three months ago.”
Closer to home, Messinger has been drawing rabbis into campaigns for human rights in developing countries, saying that one of her main new jobs is “to intensify the work we do with rabbis.”
“We have what we call a global justice fellowship. It’s competitive. We select about 12 to 15 rabbis a year for a six-month fellowship. We meet with them a few times during the first three months, and we take them to a country where we have a lot of different projects for a week to 10 days, expose them to what the work looks like on the ground, with the expectation, which has been realized, that they’ll come back and blog for us and speak for us and advocate for us in Washington.
“We now have between three and four hundred rabbis who have done that with us,” she said, citing the example of taking rabbis to the Dominican Republic to familiarize them with the local crisis over the citizenship of ethnic Haitians.
“The issue we’re working on in the Dominican Republic is the intention of the government to render stateless 250,000 Haitians — Dominicans of Haitian descent — and throw them out to a country they’ve never lived in, in a language they don’t speak. It’s a huge problem, but it’s actually a manageable problem in the sense that it is something the US government can make noise about. It’s in this hemisphere. And, given the history of Jews, this is a very real issue.
“So we have engaged the rabbis, and we’ve had quite an impact in Washington,” she said. “Obviously, having an impact on this Congress doesn’t get you anywhere. But we’ve had an impact on the State Department,” which was under the impression that there was not a big problem in the Dominican Republic, she said.
“We said to them: That’s just patently false — and they actually listened to us.”
The next trip the rabbis made to the Dominican Republic met with a very different view from the United States Embassy, where the ambassador was acknowledging “very big problems,” Messinger said. “I think many rabbis see social justice as a part of their clergy work — see its roots in Judaism — and, frankly, having some other things to talk to their congregations about.”