It’s time to reclaim human rights

Israeli youth will never respect human rights if they remain synonymous with anti-Israel activity.

Price-tag attack in Latrun 370 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Price-tag attack in Latrun 370
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
This weekend, police arrested five Jewish teens on suspicion of attacking an Arab in downtown Jerusalem Thursday night and breaking his leg with a metal rod. Three weeks earlier, Jewish teens attacked another Arab in downtown Jerusalem, nearly killing their 17-year-old victim. These unprovoked assaults are just the worst of a recent spate of troubling incidents, such as last week’s vandalism of the Latrun monastery or July’s arson attack on an apartment housing migrant workers. Taken altogether, the conclusion is inescapable: A small but growing segment of Israel’s Jewish population considers any form of violence acceptable as long as the victim is non-Jewish. The classic name for this is racism.
Racism is common on the fringes of all societies, but it doesn’t usually spread beyond the margins without encouragement from mainstream opinion leaders. Unfortunately, there has been no lack of such encouragement: Examples range from a municipal rabbi who publicly urged people not to rent apartments to Arabs, yet remains on the government payroll instead of being summarily fired, to an MK from the ruling Likud party who called migrants a “cancer.”
But amid all the rabbis and politicians who have been justly fingered for contributing to this dangerous deterioration, there’s one very important group that usually gets a free pass: the so-called “human rights organizations” and their supporters in political, media and academic circles, who have taught a generation of young Israelis to view “human rights” as a dirty word.
It may seem unfair to target organizations that aren’t urging youngsters to view non-Jews as subhuman at a time when many politicians and rabbis clearly are. But there’s no way to counter racism except by inculcating the fundamental principle of human rights: that all human beings deserve respect simply because they are human – or in the religious version of the principle, because they were all created in God’s image. And you can’t possibly teach people to care about human rights if you turn the term into a synonym for anti-Israel activity. Unfortunately, however, that is precisely what has happened in recent years.
The pivotal event was the Goldstone Commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. Several Israeli “human rights” groups submitted material to the commission in support of these allegations, thereby contributing to a report that ultimately accused Israel of numerous heinous crimes, including deliberately targeting civilians, and recommended indicting it in the International Criminal Court.
Until then, most Israelis had accepted these organizations’ claim that their goal was to improve Israeli society by pointing out abuses. That was a mission Israelis could respect, even if they often disagreed with the organizations’ definition of abuses.
But trying to reform Israel from within is very different from cooperating with one of the world’s most virulently anti-Israel organizations in an effort to get Israeli leaders indicted for war crimes. Israel had no chance of a fair hearing from the Human Rights Council, a body that has devoted 80 percent of its country-specific censures to the Jewish state and made Israel its only permanent agenda item. Thus cooperating with its investigation couldn’t possibly be interpreted as anything but an effort to vilify Israel on the world stage.
Moreover, the material these groups submitted – which contributed substantially to the report’s conclusions – was clearly libelous: Even the report’s author has since many of its findings, admitting, for instance, that Israel didn’t deliberately target civilians, and that most Palestinian casualties were indeed combatants. Unfortunately, this recantation came far too late to undo the damage; much of the world still views Israel as a war criminal. And many Israelis haven’t forgiven the organizations responsible.
But if Goldstone was the turning point, numerous incidents since then have reinforced the impression that “human rights” is just a euphemism for anti-Israel activity. Take, for instance, the uproar over the “Nakba law,” which denied public funding to organizations that commemorate Israel’s establishment as a “nakba,” the Arabic word for catastrophe. Numerous “human-rights” organizations opposed this law, claiming it “crosses a red line in suppressing freedom of expression” (as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel put it). But the law doesn’t prevent anyone from expressing the view that Israel’s creation was a calamity; it merely bars them from doing so on the taxpayer’s dime. 
Thus what the law’s opponents were essentially saying is that “human rights” requires the government not only to tolerate a narrative that views the state’s very existence as a “catastrophe,” but even to finance efforts to inculcate this narrative among its own citizens. And most Israelis quite sensibly say that if “human rights” means requiring the state to finance activity so clearly inimical to its own survival, they want no part of it.
Or take the absurd claim raised by many “human rights” organizations that Israel continues to be responsible for residents of Gaza even after having withdrawn from every inch of it. If “human rights” means forcing Israel to assume responsibility for the welfare and health of 1.5 million residents of an entity that it not only doesn’t control, but has been launching rockets at it nonstop, most Israelis will quite sensibly reject the conceptual framework that imposes so onerous and unreasonable a burden.
The problem is that once the phrase “human rights” has become affiliated with such a patently unreasonable set of dogmas, it becomes impossible to teach people to respect real human rights – even ones as fundamental and seemingly obvious as the right to walk down a street without being jumped by thugs: People hear the phrase “human rights” and simply tune out. And that means anyone who opposes such thuggery has no tools with which to counter the racists in the marketplace of ideas. For how do you counter racism without talking about human rights?
Thus in the long run, there’s no way to win the battle against racism without reclaiming the concept of human rights from those who have so egregiously distorted it. And as recent events make clear, this is a battle we can no longer afford to postpone.The writer is a journalist and commentator.