Meeting Ruth Messigner

by Gedalyah Reback

Ruth Messinger has been the head of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a sort of Jewish peace corps, for the last 11 years. The organization has grown more renown the last few years because of its cause celebre to end the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. On Monday, July 20, as an intern with MyJewishLearning.com, I got to have a sit down question & answer session with her along with interns from Hazon, Avodah: Jewish Service Corps and AJWS itself.

She introduced herself and reviewed her biography. It was interesting to hear that she chanced upon the job after being offered it, not seeking out work in the Jewish community, and not having any background knowledge on international development. She credited staff for AJWS’ growth over the last 10 years, but also admitted a string of global crises have given the organization a reason to exist and expand. Most notable out of all of them has been the Sudanese government’s campaign against rebels and innocent civilians in the western Darfur region of the country.

During the Q&A, I asked her a string of questions on Darfur and whether or not she thought the efforts there were fruitful. Specifically I asked, “Do you think the peacekeepers in Darfur need more teeth?” She acknowledged the job had gotten much more difficult for anyone, civilian aid workers or military peacekeepers, after the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir. Without explicitly answering the question about giving the African Union peacekeepers more strength and capabilities, she did say their hands were well too tied.

AJWS does not focus on issues related to Israel. Some criticize AJWS for it, seeing it as a cause that would draw people away from Israel activism. She recently responded to such a claim in an article in the New Jersey Jewish News. With us she acknowledged AJWS provides other outlets for Jewish activism, and was very explicit regarding her preference to see anyone involved in AJWS make efforts in other causes too, especially Israel.

Ideologically, she sees it as an outlet for explicit Jewish involvement in international humanitarian issues. Considering we’re all development interns, she explained that there are so many complicated interests that donors to AJWS have. Some are interested in its Jewish character, and others in its international justice components. There have even been some non-Jewish donations coming into the organization, most notably for the work on Darfur.

There is also a constituency of people that want AJWS to be successful to change Jews’ collective reputation in the developing world. Motivation to snuff out antisemitism does drive some donors and activists. Messinger never indicated whether she agreed with that idea, nor any specific mindset for that matter.

She mentioned that the next couple days would involve her going to Washington to meet with officials from the Obama Administration and the State Department regarding women’s issues in affected areas. The next day there were news releases about her appointment to the Task Force on Global Poverty and Development.

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