Counterpoint: Pigeonholing rights groups

How many Israelis know that B'Tselem catalogues Palestinian attacks on Israelis as well as the Palestinian Authority's human rights abuses against its own people?

2803-forman (photo credit: IDF/archive photo)
(photo credit: IDF/archive photo)
The Israel Committee against Home Demolitions (ICAHD) is the primary NGO that fights against the virtually blanket refusal by Jerusalem's city council 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, their entire house is razed. ICAHD's work is praiseworthy. It has brought the matter of home demolitions to the attention of the world community, prompting some foreign governments to register their dismay at this policy before Israeli officials. The reason for ICAHD's success is because like some other Israeli NGOs - The Israel Committee against Torture, Machsom Watch and Women in Black - it is singularly focused. On the other hand, NGOs like B'Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) engage in a wider spectrum of activities. And in their case, were this not so, their chances of bringing about positive change in Israeli society would be limited. Yet 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 in the territories, the organization's other research projects tend to be overlooked. If RHR is repeatedly seen only protecting Palestinians who want to harvest their grapes or pick their olives free from harassment by settlers, its media exposure will necessarily overshadow the myriad of activities in which RHR is engaged. 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 other groups/causes will not merit a story, even on the back pages of the newspaper. A MULTI-PURPOSE NGO does itself a disservice when it allows a situation in which only a chosen few of the organization's priorities are publicized, thus failing to get the word out about all of its activities. A balance must be struck. No one project should monopolize the time, energy and finances of the organization. Too few people know of the myriad activities conducted by RHR, ACRI and B'Tselem. Would anyone have expected that RHR has received funding from government ministries for its educational projects, conducts seminars for pre-army programs and police and officer training courses, and runs a human rights yeshiva on some university campuses? Has anyone heard of ACRI's Citizen Guide, Israel's first comprehensive primer on the rights and responsibilities of Israeli citizenship? Who is aware that B'Tselem catalogues Palestinian attacks on Israelis as well as 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 advising the economically deprived and the socially disenfranchised? What about the fact that all four organizations are called upon to testify before Knesset committees? THE ABOVE activities can have a profound impact on Israeli society. But they must be advertised so that not only will people have a positive view of the organizations, but also so that 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. Regrettably, when they hear of the activities of human rights groups, for the most part they only hear of the ones that seem excessive. Too often, these multi-faceted NGOs are labeled as "radical" because they are perceived as continually creating confrontations with Israeli authorities. Perpetual acts of moral defiance automatically garner immediate admiration in some quarters, but ultimately overwhelm an organization's other worthy causes and undermine its best interests, casting it as a fringe element within Israeli society. If these organizations are seen to be routinely engaged in fringe behavior, justifiably or not, their access to Israeli institutions and Knesset committees could be jeopardized. Further, altering a one-sided perception is critical; otherwise political and monetary support for these organizations, which primarily stems from an established, though liberal network, will diminish. More so, if an NGO 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 critic and advocate - 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.