JERUSALEM, May 8 (RNS)--When the First Zionist Congress was convened in 1897 inBasel Switzerland, the Swiss founder of the International Committee ofthe Red Cross, Jean-Henri Dunant, was lauded by Zionist activist TheodorHerzl as a "Christian Zionist."

More than 100 years later, the humanitarian organization created byDunant has yet to admit Israel as a full voting member, ostensiblybecause of the Israeli organization's use of the "Star of David" as aprotective emblem and symbol.

Recently, however, the longtime Israeli campaign to gain recognitionfor its humanitarian aid society, Magen David Adom (MDA), has begun togather momentum, largely because of the backing of the powerful AmericanRed Cross. Last week, the American Red Cross announced it would withholdits $5 million dues payment to the international organization until theIsraeli organization was accepted.

And the American Red Cross has hinted stronger sanctions couldeventually be in the offing, including the U.S. government withholding$100 million in annual contributions.

The dispute highlights the complex of emotions and history stillelicited by the display of religious symbols in modern-day society--beit the symbol of the cross associated with Christianity, the lunarcrescent of Islam or the six-pointed star, associated with Judaism andthe State of Israel. All three symbols have, in fact, a long history of use inhumanitarian rescue missions--as well as abuse in wartime campaigns.

The cross was carried in the Crusaders' campaigns in the HolyLand, as was the lunar crescent when Islamic fighters swept across the same landscape.

The symbol of the Magen David, literally "Shield of David," but morecommonly known as the "Star of David," was first used by the biblicalKing David on the armor of his soldiers, and throughout the centuries onJewish homes, synagogues and grave markers.

In 1948, the symbol was later incorporated into the center of theIsraeli national flag. But even before then it was known as the symbolof the MDA, the voluntary humanitarian aid society of the Jewishsettlement in Palestine, founded in 1930.

The organization, officially recognized by the state of Israel in1950, is responsible for an extensive system of ambulatory carefacilities inside of the country. But it also has been an activeparticipant for years in official ICRC missions to countries and regionsstruck by natural disaster, war and famine, said Moshe Malloul, MDApresident.

"Whether it was the war in Kosovo, last year's earthquakes in Turkeyor the famine in Ethiopia, we were there," Malloul said in an interview.

In 1949, the MDA requested admission as a voting member into theFederation of International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, butthe application was denied, and the Israeli organization eventually wasadmitted only as an observer.

Ostensibly, the reason for the rejection was the fearedproliferation of symbols that could accompany the recognition of the redStar of David, alongside of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Eventoday, ICRC officials in the Geneva-based organization note thatKhazakhstan, a breakaway state from the former Soviet Union, also isdemanding its own unique symbol.

But Israeli and American Red Cross officials privately suggest thereal source of resistance remains the reluctance of many Arab RedCrescent societies to be identified with Israel, and in particular withthe Star of David symbol vilified in the Arab world.

"The Israeli Red Cross, or MDA, is a sister society and a member ofthe Red Cross movement that has been providing invaluable humanitarianservices for the past 70 years," said American Red Cross officialChristopher Thomas, the group's officer for external affairs. "We havelaws in place to prevent the proliferation of symbols. So to exclude afully functioning member of the organization solely on the basis thatthey don't use the same symbol is egregious."

According to the United States, Israel could be admitted to fullmembership into the international organization, and the Star of Davidsymbol "grandfathered" into recognition under existing statutes of theInternational Committee of the Red Cross, which were codified in 1949.

"Grandfathering has substantial precedent," Thomas said. "In 1949,the Geneva Conventions stated that all future parties must use the redcross. This was the only stated reason for denying recognition of theMDA at the time.

"The five Red Crescent Societies that were part of the internationalfederation of societies in 1949, were, however, grandfathered, with theunderstanding that no more societies would be admitted using thecrescent. Since 1949, despite the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC hasrecognized 25 societies using the red crescent," he notes.

During the time of the Soviet Union, the ICRC also accepted the useof yet another symbol--the combined red cross and crescent. That isthe very same symbol Khazakhstan's aid organization now wants to use.