Activist who took Israeli disaster aid global wins humanitarian prize

Yotam Polizer heads IsraAid, NGO with 320 staff that provides help at disasters worldwide, will receive prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer aids a Syrian refugee in Lesbos, Greece, in 2015 (courtesy of IsraAid)
IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer aids a Syrian refugee in Lesbos, Greece, in 2015 (courtesy of IsraAid)

An activist who has led the way for civilian Israeli aid work around the globe is set to receive a prestigious humanitarian prize.

Yotam Polizer became the second employee at the nonprofit IsraAid in 2011, and has led the organization since 2017.

IsrAid has grown to 320 staffers and has made disaster aid by Israeli citizens international, adding to efforts of government bodies such as the Foreign Ministry and military.

The organization today has a team of 30 on the ground in Ukraine, as well as staff in South Sudan helping victims of gender-motivated violence. It has worked in Greece and elsewhere helping Syrian refugees, in Washington State after a 2014 wildfire, in Mozambique after the 2019 cyclone and in many more locations — 50 countries altogether.

The committee for the Charles Bronfman Prize, a $100,000 award to a Jewish humanitarian aged under 50, announced on Wednesday that it has chosen 39-year-old Polizer as its 2023 recipient.

The prize, which will be given to Polizer at a New York ceremony in May, was established by the family of US Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman in his honor. Polizer said he plans to donate part of the money to IsraAid.

“I think that by underscoring the importance of our humanitarian work, this recognition provides people to process the sense of the feelings of helplessness so many experience at this troubling time,” Polizer told The Times of Israel just after hearing of the award.

“People feel helpless, they don’t know what to do with all these big questions. IsraAid’s work, and the recognition it just received, is a story of people saying that there are actually things we can do, there are ways to get involved, there are ways to jump in,” he said.

IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer on an aid mission to Odessa, Ukraine, in October 2022 (courtesy of IsraAid)

Polizer describes the organization as having a “double impact.” He said it helps once with the aid it provides, which includes psychological assistance, logistical help in disaster areas, medical assistance and more. And then the “bridge building” impact of providing this help brings people together.

“One example of bridge building is a memorable day when we were helping Syrian refugees as they arrived in Greece,” he stated. “Together with some of our Arab-Israeli staff I pulled a girl, a Syrian refugee, out of the water.”

When the girl’s father realized that the aid team was Israeli he told Polizer: “My worst enemy became my biggest support, and the people who are supposed to protect me back home in Syria chased me away.”

He told Polizer: ‘My worst enemy became my biggest support, and the people who are supposed to protect me back home in Syria chased me away.’

Polizer got involved in IsraAid after a 2011 tsunami in Japan, when he headed to the disaster zone for three weeks and ended up staying for three years.

“When I decided to get involved I had been sitting, like, all of us watching these very surreal images of mass destruction,” he recalled. “You’re seeing cars and houses and people washed away. And the main feeling you get after saying, ‘wow, we’re living in like a Will Smith movie,’ is the question of what to do with the helplessness.”

Missions since have included Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, which he describes as “the scariest experience of my life.” In August 2021, just after the US pulled out of Afghanistan, he was involved in the evacuation of 205 Afghanistan human rights activists and women in a covert operation.

IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer on an aid mission to Greece to help Syrian refugees (courtesy of IsraAid)

As CEO Polizer has emphasized building IsraAid as a well-oiled machine. He said: “When people think about humanitarian aid, they think about medical support and they think about search and rescue, they don’t think about the need for finance people or communication people or legal teams.

“So we learned that need to build really a strong establishment and again, it’s not just enough to do short-term relief, because it’s like sticking on a bandaid. And all the team takes part of the credit for this award.”

Part of IsraAid’s staff (courtesy of IsraAid)

Polizer said that IsraAid’s “secret to success” has been side-stepping politics and focusing purely on humanitarian matters.

“There’s no hidden agenda here,” he said. “Now, because the name of the organization is IsraAid it’s clear we come from Israel. And because sometimes we work in countries or with places that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, we do see how the added value of our work can be an impact in terms of building bridges.

“But the motivation is all about the people we help. It’s not about showing the world how great we are. Rather, we think that Israel and Israelis have a role to play. There are a lot of great things about this country and its people and like whether it’s water technology, or expertise in trauma care, we want to share it with the world. We just want to do the best job we can,” he said.

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