Borderline Views: Preserving human rights of 'the other'

The real challenge facing human rights groups is respecting and upholding the civil rights of those with whom we often disagree.

By
July 5, 2011 02:00
David Newman.

DavidNewman311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

How appropriate that in the week the Knesset launched a new attack on human rights movements, especially those funded by the European Union, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) received the Gruber International Justice Prize.

In its announcement, the Gruber Foundation stated that “since its founding in 1972, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has played a leading role in the struggle to provide human rights for all people living in Israel and the occupied territories.”

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There are many human rights organizations in Israel working to the very best of Jewish (yes, Jewish) values of respecting and honoring “the other.” In addition to ACRI, two of the most significant are B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights. B’Tselem takes its name from the statement in Genesis that all people were created in the “image” (b’tzelem) of God, and that every one – black or white, Jew or gentile, Israeli or Arab – is of equal stature and status.

For thousands of years, Jewish communities throughout the world were persecuted, expelled and tortured. Until the post-Holocaust era, there were no international organizations or human rights groups that stood up for them. It is precisely because of the way Jews were treated for so much of our history that it is so essential, but also commendable, that Jews be in the forefront of organizations aimed at protecting civil and human rights – be it in Israel, the occupied territories or elsewhere.

It s a sign of greatness, not weakness and certainly not betrayal, to show that our historical experience does not prejudge us when, for the first time in 2,000 years, upon achieving sovereignty, we do not allow others to be treated in the way we were treated throughout our history.

One of the arguments being used against the continued funding of Israeli human rights organizations is that EU taxpayers are unaware of what their money is being spent on. But I would hazard a guess that a great majority would vote overwhelmingly in support of their taxes being used to promote and support human rights.

This would contrast sharply with the relatively small percentage of Israelis who would support the use of their taxes to finance continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Unfortunately we do not know what percentage of our taxes are used for this purpose, since the government hides the regional distribution of this funding for obvious political reasons. Perhaps we should start by demanding a transparent account of what our own tax money is being used for before we start attacking the EU for the way it uses its funds.

Human rights organizations do not support the enemy, as the current legislators and NGO Monitor would have us believe. There may be some that abuse their position, and which have to be dealt with, but no more so than numerous right-wing NGOs which abuse the basic civil rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, and even espouse a form of racism toward others which would have been abhorred by Jewish community leaders in the past.

ACRI is to be commended for its widespread support of human rights. But it is much more difficult to support the human rights of “the other” than it is to support the human rights of our own group – composed of people who think like us, look like us and speak like us, and for whom we have an automatic sympathy.

The real challenge facing human rights groups is respecting and upholding the civil rights of those with whom we often disagree, many of whom do not even demonstrate the same basic values concerning the human rights of all individuals. Precisely in such situations, we have to ensure that our policies toward them do not go beyond an acceptable and limited system of political control to ensure the safety of our own citizens. If their houses are demolished, if they are denied equal access to water, if their pregnant women cannot make it past the separation barrier to get to a hospital in time, if they are denied residency rights in places where they were born and grew up – these are not the constraints imposed by a civilized society.

These are the same practices that were used against Jews for thousands of years, and about which we should be hypersensitive when it happens to those under our own control.

It has been argued that those who attack human rights organizations should do it in such a way as not to enable the Israel-haters to argue that Israel is not a true democracy.

But this has nothing to do with Israel-haters or -lovers. Denying the right of free speech and criticism, imposing sanctions on groups that stand up for the human rights of others – these actions threaten the very foundations of a society that markets itself as the “only true democracy in the Middle East.”

Of course, Israel will be portrayed as being less of a democracy if it restricts the activities of these groups. And it is precisely those who are concerned with, and sympathetic toward, Israel who are most worried about this threat to the basic values of the state. The Israel-haters will always find a reason to criticize Israel, regardless of any specific policy. But when something causes great concern to the supporters of Israel, it is time to get really worried about what’s happening to Israeli society.

Thank God for the existence of B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights and ACRI. They act in the very best of Jewish traditions, and enable many of us to be proud of the State of Israel, in which the human rights of others are respected for the simple fact that, like us, we were all created in God’s image.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.


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