Tough Sell For U.N. Palestinian Agency

Misconceptions Dog UNRWA in U.S., Especially Among Jews

Grandi Vision: Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, inspects relief operation in Gaza.
getty images
Grandi Vision: Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, inspects relief operation in Gaza.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 02, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Twice a year Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, comes to Washington to make the case for continuing funding for his organization, and the job only gets tougher.

The U.N. agency, which is the primary provider of education, healthcare and housing for Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, was never an easy sell on Capitol Hill and UNRWA has been working hard to convince lawmakers and administration officials that the cause is worthy.

“I often feel that there is more understanding for what we do in Israel than in other parts of the world including here in the United States,” he said in a February 29 interview with the Forward.

He added that he has particular difficulty making his case to American Jews. “Not in every part of the Jewish community but in some parts of the Jewish community,” he said.

Grandi, an Italian national who was appointed commissioner-general two years ago, believes that most criticism hurled at UNRWA in America stems from a lack of understanding. For many in the U.S. Congress, the agency is seen as perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, not working to solve it.

“I think it is important for all members of Congress to remember that UNRWA fulfils a vital humanitarian mission for a population that is in a suspended status because of politics and it is in the political domain that the issue of refugees has to be resolved,” Grandi said in between meetings on Capitol Hill. “UNRWA is not responsible for that.”

Established in 1949 to help deal with the problem of Palestinian refugees spawned by Israel’s 1948 independence war, UNRWA has since grown substantially and now serves nearly 5 million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. With 31,000 employees, UNRWA has more staff than any other U.N. agency. The United States is UNRWA’s biggest single donor, responsible for a quarter of the agency’s $1 billion annual budget.

But while the State Department has expressed its willingness to continue funding the organization, House Republicans have been leading a call to limit the funds. Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation last year calling for imposing tight conditions on providing U.S. funds for UNRWA as part of a broader move to reform the United Nations and its agencies.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.