Getting beyond stereotypes

When most Israelis hear of human rights groups' activities, they only hear of the ones that seem extreme.

By DAVID FORMAN
May 24, 2007 12:23
4 minute read.
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The Israel Committee against Home Demolitions (ICHAD) is the primary NGO that fights against the virtually blanket refusal by the Jerusalem Municipality to grant building permits to east Jerusalem Palestinians. This discriminatory policy is based on Jewish political considerations and not on the social needs of the Palestinian population. Often, when permits are rejected, some Palestinians feel forced to violate this trumped-up law that is prejudicially applied to them, and illegally add a room or construct a new home. Soon afterward, under orders of the municipality, not only is the new home demolished, but also if only a room has been added the entire house is razed. ICHAD's work in defending Palestinians who want only to provide for their growing families is praiseworthy. While its influence has been limited, it has brought the matter of home demolitions to the attention of the world community, and some foreign governments have registered their dismay at this policy before Israeli officials. ICHAD has been able to successfully raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians because it, along with other advocacy groups such as the Israel Committee against Torture, Machsom Watch and Women in Black are all singularly focused movements. ADVOCACY GROUPS like B'Tselem - the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, Rabbis for Human Rights and the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, because their social missions are eclectic and variegated, cannot afford to be pigeonholed and one-dimensional. If they are typecast as only being concerned with one specific aspect of the wide spectrum of activities they sponsor, their ability to be a force for positive change in Israeli society will be limited. In this sense, B'Tselem, RHR, IRAC and ACRI are uniquely challenged because they seem to invite media coverage on only one aspect of their social objectives. If B'Tselem calls a press conference only to publicize its research on the IDF's aggressive behavior, the organization's other research projects will be overlooked. If RHR is repeatedly seen only protecting Palestinians who want to harvest their grapes or pick their olives free of settler harassment, media exposure of that event will necessarily ignore the myriad of activities that RHR is engaged in. If IRAC is quoted in the press almost exclusively on matters related to discrimination against Reform Judaism in Israel, media interest in other areas on IRAC's agenda is disregarded. And if ACRI primarily heralds its defense of Palestinians against civil rights abuses, reportage of its representation of others will not merit a story on even the back pages of the newspaper. A multipurpose NGO does itself a disservice when it reduces its programs to reflect only a chosen few of its priorities, no matter their importance, thus failing to get the word out in the public domain about all of its institution's activities. A balance must be struck, whereby concentration on a particular project does not divert time, energy and finances that should be equally expended on the organization's other social commitments. Few people know of these organizations' activities beyond the above-mentioned ones. Would anyone have expected that RHR has received funding from government ministries for its educational projects, has entry into the public school system, conducts seminars for pre-army programs and police and officer training courses and runs a human rights yeshiva? Has anyone heard of ACRI's Citizen's Guide, Israel's first comprehensive primer on the rights and responsibilities of Israeli citizenship? Who is aware that B'Tselem catalogs Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Palestinian violence against alleged collaborators and the Palestinian Authority's human rights abuses against its own people? Does anyone know of IRAC's work protecting foreign laborers from draconian employment conditions or confronting those who traffic in women or advising the economically deprived and the socially disenfranchised? What about the fact that government officials often turn to ACRI, B'Tselem, IRAC and RHR to testify before Knesset committees? The above activities of each one of the organizations are truly significant. Their impact on Israeli society can be profound. But, these activities need to be advertised so that not only will people have a positive view of the organizations, but because other institutions - schools, youth movements, community centers, teachers' unions - will turn to them to supply educational materials and programs, which reflect the need to protect human rights as a bulwark of a democratic society. Most Israelis turn a blind eye to civil liberties violations. Unfortunately, when they hear of the activities of human rights groups, they only hear of the ones that seem extreme. Too often, these multifaceted NGOs are labeled as unduly radical because they are perceived as perpetually creating confrontations with the authorities. Altering this perception is critical, otherwise support for these organizations, which primarily stems from an established, though liberal network, will diminish. More so, if an advocacy group is viewed as being only critical of Israel, then the organization's mainstream supporters will question its sense of proportion and, more fundamentally, its Zionist credentials. The work of B'Tselem, RHR, ACRI and IRAC is inspiring, but each organization needs to speak two languages - that of advocate and critic - in ways that one language does not drown out the other. So too with their overall objectives - one area of prime interest must not obfuscate the richness of their impressive scope of activity.

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