More than 100 years later, the humanitarian organization created by Dunant has yet to admit Israel as a full voting member, ostensibly because of the Israeli organization's use of the "Star of David" as a protective emblem and symbol.
Recently, however, the longtime Israeli campaign to gain recognition for its humanitarian aid society, Magen David Adom (MDA), has begun to gather momentum, largely because of the backing of the powerful American Red Cross. Last week, the American Red Cross announced it would withhold its $5 million dues payment to the international organization until the Israeli organization was accepted.
And the American Red Cross has hinted stronger sanctions could eventually be in the offing, including the U.S. government withholding $100 million in annual contributions.
The dispute highlights the complex of emotions and history still elicited by the display of religious symbols in modern-day society--be it the symbol of the cross associated with Christianity, the lunar crescent of Islam or the six-pointed star, associated with Judaism and the State of Israel. All three symbols have, in fact, a long history of use in humanitarian rescue missions--as well as abuse in wartime campaigns.
The cross was carried in the Crusaders' campaigns in the Holy Land, as was the lunar crescent when Islamic fighters swept across the same landscape.
The symbol of the Magen David, literally "Shield of David," but more commonly known as the "Star of David," was first used by the biblical King David on the armor of his soldiers, and throughout the centuries on Jewish homes, synagogues and grave markers.
In 1948, the symbol was later incorporated into the center of the Israeli national flag. But even before then it was known as the symbol of the MDA, the voluntary humanitarian aid society of the Jewish settlement in Palestine, founded in 1930.
The organization, officially recognized by the state of Israel in 1950, is responsible for an extensive system of ambulatory care facilities inside of the country. But it also has been an active participant for years in official ICRC missions to countries and regions struck by natural disaster, war and famine, said Moshe Malloul, MDA president.
"Whether it was the war in Kosovo, last year's earthquakes in Turkey or the famine in Ethiopia, we were there," Malloul said in an interview.
In 1949, the MDA requested admission as a voting member into the Federation of International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, but the application was denied, and the Israeli organization eventually was admitted only as an observer.
Ostensibly, the reason for the rejection was the feared proliferation of symbols that could accompany the recognition of the red Star of David, alongside of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Even today, ICRC officials in the Geneva-based organization note that Khazakhstan, a breakaway state from the former Soviet Union, also is demanding its own unique symbol.
But Israeli and American Red Cross officials privately suggest the real source of resistance remains the reluctance of many Arab Red Crescent societies to be identified with Israel, and in particular with the Star of David symbol vilified in the Arab world.
According to the United States, Israel could be admitted to full membership into the international organization, and the Star of David symbol "grandfathered" into recognition under existing statutes of the International 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 red cross. This was the only stated reason for denying recognition of the MDA at the time.
"The five Red Crescent Societies that were part of the international federation of societies in 1949, were, however, grandfathered, with the understanding that no more societies would be admitted using the crescent. Since 1949, despite the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC has recognized 25 societies using the red crescent," he notes.
During the time of the Soviet Union, the ICRC also accepted the use of yet another symbol--the combined red cross and crescent. That is the very same symbol Khazakhstan's aid organization now wants to use.
ICRC officials say they are moving toward a different kind of solution--the adoption of yet another symbol, a more neutral red diamond--that could be used by countries reluctant to use either cross or the crescent.
"It's a legal problem and to solve it we need a change in the Geneva Conventions," said Alain Aeschlimann, head of the ICRC delegation to Israel and the Autonomous Palestinian Territories.
Aeschlilmann and other officials said a series of conventions by member states and societies of the Red Cross Federation could lead to the approval of the diamond symbol by the end of the year.
But both Israel and the United States have rejected the proposed solution.
"Israel and Khazakhstan would be the only countries forced to adopt the diamond because no other country in the world would adopt the symbol," said Thomas. It would, he added, consign both countries to "second class status."
Malloul also rejected the idea of forcing an unwanted new symbol onto Israel and a few other countries.
If a neutral symbol is to be adopted, he said, it should become the "unique universal protective marker for all national societies in the international arena," he said.
Use of a neutral symbol such as the diamond by international societies could indeed have some value in times of war, Malloul said. Humanitarian aid vehicles bearing both crosses and crescents, for instance, have been increasingly vulnerable to attack by partisan Muslim or Christian forces in ethnic and religious conflicts like those seen recently in the former Yugoslavia and Indonesia.
"It's possible that without any connection to Israel's case, the International Red Cross could decide to opt for a new symbol that isn't identified at all with religion because the symbol of the cross and the crescent has its own problems," he said. Each national society could still continue to use its own national symbol in local rescue work.
But for the moment, that sort of compromise appears highly unlikely. In particular, the American Red Cross is deeply opposed to such a move, viewing it as a dilution of the legacy of the national organization founded by Clara Barton just after the Civil War and only a few years after Dunant founded the Swiss organization.
"The (U.S.) position on the diamond is that it is valueless," Thomas said. "What I associate it with is casinos, playing cards and hazardous waste."