I’ve always felt like an outsider.  As a child I was too shy to make friends easily.  I was a tiny, quiet girl with a really screwed up family situation.  I didn’t know anyone like me.  No one at all.  And there’s one other thing that’s important to mention.  I’m Jewish, and I grew up in Texas, a place without a lot of Jews.  Being part of a minority often goes along with feeling like an outsider.  It’s inevitable. 

When I was diagnosed with diabetes and became involved in diabetes advocacy, I felt – for the first time in my life – like I was part of a club where nothing about me mattered outside of the workings of my pancreas.  My height didn’t matter, my sweaty palms didn’t matter, my taste in clothes didn’t matter, my education didn’t matter, my religion didn’t matter, my nationality didn’t matter, and my geographic location didn’t matter.  Finally, I was not an outsider in any way.  I had gained golden membership to a club I never wanted to be a part of. 

I’m the sort of person who figures that since I’m part of the club – like it or not – I may as well make the best of it.  So I choose to learn from the club rather than resent it.  I choose to thank diabetes because it has taught me how to take care of myself and to appreciate good health, and life, every minute of every day. And I appreciate the fact that diabetes is the ultimate equalizer.  Anyone can get diabetes. Diabetes doesn’t discriminate.  Diabetes brings together people from all over the world – of all nationalities, of all religions – millions and millions of us, all fighting – not each other – but a disease.  Our global symbol, courtesy of The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) is a circle, which represents unity.  Unity.  Unity for a universal problem.  As a person in this universe with diabetes, the IDF and the blue circle represent me.  I know this even if I don’t feel it because the mission of the International Diabetes Federation is “to advance diabetes care, prevention and a cure worldwide.”  Part of the mission is also to “advance and protect the rights of people with diabetes, and combat discrimination.”  Combat discrimination.  But yet this year’s very important IDF World Diabetes Congress takes place in Dubai, a place where not everyone is welcome.

I can’t travel to Dubai because my diabetes and I live in Tel Aviv right now.  You can’t travel directly from Israel to the UAE, and the UAE bans Israelis from their country.  More than that, according to USA Today, as of February 2011, the UAE restricts entry for tourists who’ve previously visited Israel.  So, wow, it’s not just Israelis who aren’t welcome in the UAE, it’s anyone who has set foot in Israel.  Wow.  To me, that’s a very strong statement.  That tells me loud and clear that I’m not wanted in the UAE.

What then am I to think about the IDF’s decision to hold the World Diabetes Congress in Dubai?  Is it not undercutting the great equalizing power of diabetes to hold this very, very important event in a place where not everyone is welcome?  What about combating discrimination?

Why Dubai?  In the IDF Congress brochure, IDF President Jean Claude Mbanya said, “The main reason for hosting the 2011 congress in Dubai is the significance of diabetes to the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf region and the IDF Middle East and North African Region as a whole.” 

I’m in favor of addressing the diabetes epidemic in the UAE.  I think it’s the IDF’s responsibility to help curb the epidemic.  But this must be done in a way that does not alienate another nation or any individuals.  When I asked the IDF about Israelis participating in the Congress, Luc Hendrick, Congress & Governance Director, said, “All participants who have applied in a timely manner through IDF channels to travel to Dubai have been allowed to enter UAE.”   So, yes, the IDF says it made arrangements to make it possible for an individual Israeli to get into Dubai.  But, the Israel Diabetes Association is not participating in the Congress.  I talked to their spokeswoman to find out why.  The answer she gave was a very simple one, “We don’t feel it’s safe enough to sit in a booth with a flag of Israel.”

I have to second that feeling.  Even if given permission to enter the UAE, I wouldn’t go because I wouldn’t feel comfortable.  I don’t believe in going where I’m not wanted.  And I also believe that where I was born, where I’ve traveled, and where I’m sitting right now should not make me afraid to attend the World Diabetes Congress.  Diabetes is a dangerous disease, but it’s supposed to be a safe club. 

Some of the best diabetes research and innovations come out of Israel, but I would never expect the IDF to hold a World Diabetes Congress in Tel Aviv.  It wouldn’t be appropriate.  It would be just as wrong as it is to hold the Congress in Dubai.

I hope you don’t read something into this post that isn’t here.  This is not about Israel or the UAE.  It’s not about religion or personal beliefs.  It’s about my disappointment in the organization that represents all 300 million of us.  Or does it?  The only beautiful thing about diabetes is that it makes us all the same.  We’re not battling one another.  We’re battling for our health. My brothers and sisters with diabetes across the globe know this, from the UAE to Israel.  From Ghana to Japan.  From Russia to Argentina.  I have faith in my people, if not in our leading body.

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8 years ago

I lost my job of 20+ years in 2009 for taking a stand (on an internal computer bulletin board) regarding this very subject.  I am a gentile with a Jewish heart.  I said I wouldn’t step foot in Dubai if someone gave me a fully paid vacation there because of their discrimination against Jewish people. This huge firm would never say that’s why I was let go — but I know it’s why.  That’s okay!  Gotta take a stand — and sometimes it’s going to hurt.  That scar is one I’m proud of.  Sort of felt like I was wearing… Read more »

Jodi Anderson
Jodi Anderson
9 years ago

Jessica, I found this all to be fascinating… everything from your personal history growing up in Texas to information about IDF as well as the situation with UAE. Thank you for shedding some light on this.

9 years ago

es una soberana mentirosa es un reclamo politico escudado en una enfermedad… 

9 years ago

The UAE is a very safe and neutral country.  I have had the chance to visit and I felt safer and more welcome there than I have in many places in the United States, my own country.  The diabetes epidemic is horrendous in the UAE with one in every four UAE nationals having Diabetes.  Politics and disease state awareness should not mix.  

Dr. Margaret A. Morris

@Scott Strange- Notably, though, the Middle East is far down the list of countries with the greatest number of diabetics (as opposed to the greatest rate of diabetes): . So, arguably, the IDF is making a statement of geographic priority by not holding the meeting in an Asian country. Of course, holding it in China would carry a lot of human rights baggage of its own, but India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and the US for that matter are all at the top of the “Most diabetes” list… 

9 years ago

Wow. I have to second Scott as to why they chose that location, but I also see your point. I’m sorry things are like that for you.

9 years ago

I really appreciate the perspective from this post!!!!

Scott Strange
9 years ago

This is just my take on it, but the IDF wanted a Middle Eastern site because 6 of the top 10 countries with the highest incidence of diabetes are in the region (if memory serves).  I believe that Dubai was the safest place for such a gathering

9 years ago

Shalom! I’m not welcome there, either. What is strange about the whole thing is that Israel is at the forefront of diabetes research.

Scott Strumello
9 years ago

I Tweeted about this the other day. Although the gentile population has no particular vested interest in Israel per se, everyone has an interest in free speech, and the UAE is country with obvious restrictions on the free dissemination of opinions and no tolerance for individual lifestyles. Note the following limitation on internet content, as described by Wikipedia: “Internet content is regulated in Dubai. Etisalat uses a proxy server to filter internet content that is deemed to be inconsistent with the values of the country, that provides information on bypassing the proxy, dating, gay and lesbian networks, sites pertaining to… Read more »

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