José Andrés eulogizes World Central Kitchen workers killed in Gaza

Under low gray clouds on a chilly spring morning, mourners gathered Thursday at Washington National Cathedral to remember the lives of the seven World Central Kitchen aid workers who were killed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza this month.

Outside the main doors of the gothic structure, a bagpiper played as an estimated 560 guests entered, including chef José Andrés, the restaurateur-turned-humanitarian who helms the anti-hunger organization. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff avoided the crowds but slipped in, and was seated in the front row.

The interfaith program, which featured a performance by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, included hymns and prayers in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions as well as readings from the Quran and the Bible.

A tearful Andrés — exhibiting a grief so different from his usual ebullient persona — spoke against a backdrop of the flags representing the home countries of the victims, reading the names of the dead and recalling each of their stories. “They were the best of humanity,” he said. “Their example should inspire us to do better, to be better.”

Those being celebrated were Palestinian Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, John Chapman of Britain, Jacob Flickinger of the U.S. and Canada, Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom of Australia, James Henderson of Britain, James Kirby of Britain, and Damian Sobol of Poland.

Flat-screen televisions throughout the space flashed photographs of the deceased, some smiling for the cameras, some wearing WCK T-shirts; others showed them at work. Programs detailed their lives and their passion for helping people, the drive that apparently had drawn them each to war-ravaged Gaza.

“They will be remembered and revered for the kindness they have shown and for the love they have given,” Susan Shankman, senior rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Foundation, told the crowd. “They are shining examples of humanity.”

Andrés nearly broke down when paying tribute to Frankcom, who he said was “like a sister to me.” Sobol, he said, “had an unstoppable desire to help.” Andrés acknowledged the vast number of aid workers from other organizations that have also been killed — and he paid tribute to the WCK staffers in attendance, asking them to stand.

“You are our light in the darkness,” he said as the crowd erupted in sustained applause, a rare outburst in a sacred space.

Andrés also expressed his dissatisfaction with the official explanation of the attack. “I know there are many unanswered questions,” he said, including why the WCK was operating in Gaza. “Even one innocent life taken is one too many.”

Still, through tears, he also expressed a continued dedication to his organization’s mission. “We take risk because we want to change the world,” he said. “Food is a universal human right — feeding each other, cooking and eating together is what makes us human. A plate of food is a plate of hope, a message that someone, somewhere cares for you.”

Seated alongside Emhoff were deputy secretary of state Kurt Campbell, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and assistant secretary of state Julieta Valls Noyes. Diplomats from 30 countries, including the U.S. and Canada, were in attendance, organizers said.

The memorial was no everyday affair, as evidenced by the high-profile attendees and the setting, the site of state funerals whose pews have seated foreign leaders and U.S. statesmen, and the phalanx of media perched in an upper balcony, cameras and eyes trained on the crowd below. But the deaths of those remembered have been felt around the globe.

The April 1 attack on the convoy carrying the seven aid workers swiftly drew international outrage. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “unintentional” and said Israeli authorities were “investigating the matter fully” and would “do everything possible to prevent this from happening again.”

Four days later, Israel’s military released the results of its own investigation and said the attack on the WCK convoy was a “serious violation” of its policies, the result of “errors,” and was “contrary” to military procedures. It said that two officers would be dismissed and commanders reprimanded, but made no mention of legal actions such as prosecutions. World Central Kitchen responded by saying that the IDF “cannot credibly investigate its own failure in Gaza” and demanding that an independent commission investigate.

The killings also prompted WCK to pause its operations in Gaza and other raid organizations to follow suit, even as famine threatened Palestinians in the region. WCK officials have said they are considering whether and when to resume. Since the killings, Andres has maintained a relatively low public profile, though he said in an interview with Reuters that WCK had communicated with the Israeli military about the aid workers’ whereabouts and said they were “targeted deliberately nonstop until everybody was dead.”

Andres, a Spanish immigrant to the U.S. who started building his restaurant empire in Washington, founded World Central Kitchen in 2010 as a scrappy organization. Since then, it has grown into one of the most recognized humanitarian forces, partnering with chefs on the ground in emergencies, including hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico and wildfires in the western United States and in Australia. It has fed refugees on the U.S.-Mexico border and people fleeing war in Ukraine. His work earned him a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize and made him, with his effusive energy and calls for “longer tables, not higher walls,” the face of humanitarian aid.

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