Critical Currents: Human decency

The current campaign against the human rights community mask a fundamental unwillingness to come to terms with abuses of human rights.

army protestor scuffle 88 248 (photo credit: )
army protestor scuffle 88 248
(photo credit: )
If the self-appointed watchdogs of human rights organizations are to be believed, activism on behalf of basic freedoms in Israel and the territories under its control is anathema. Advocates of civil rights and individual dignity are charged with everything from sloppiness and misrepresentation to gross political bias and outright enmity. The indiscriminate campaign against all such organizations also encompasses our struggling human rights community. Here, as elsewhere, this family of civil society associations does not expect to win any popularity contests. It does, however, deserve to be treated fairly and its products seriously discussed precisely because - with all due respect to its critics - its existence is and will continue to be the foremost guarantee of the country's democratic values. The current assault on local as well as international human rights organizations follows a distinct, four-pronged format. The first - and by far the most disingenuous - tool focuses on the motives of those engaged in human rights activities. Major international human rights organizations are accused of being rabidly anti-Israel. Local groups, whether they deal exclusively with the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories, with the status of the Arab minority or with a broad spectrum of civil rights in the country as a whole are at best dubbed as leftist (in the pejorative sense) or worse as traitors. Either through thinly veiled innuendos or directly, they are denigrated for purportedly undermining Israel's integrity and attempting to impugn its morality. Their loyalty is questioned and their rhetoric is seen as a cover for a new kind of "silent warfare" against the state. By disparaging the motives of these messengers, so this reasoning goes, it is possible to dismiss their message. ISRAELI HUMAN rights activists, however, are prompted by motives that diverge dramatically from those ascribed to them by their detractors. Drawing on their Jewish heritage and on the principles ensconced in the vision of the country's founders, they are committed to the protection of human values and to an elementary sense of human decency - one which requires that every individual be treated with the same respect they demand for themselves. Oftentimes, uncovering injustices and highlighting violations of human rights underline systemic abuses that cause extreme discomfort in official circles. But the purpose of bringing these into the open is to increase public sensitivities, to promote open debate and to expedite corrective action. This is especially true of the spate of reports dealing with the attack on Gaza earlier this year. If anything - far from being propelled by political motives - many of those involved in human rights work have discovered that their political positions have actually been shaped by their work rather than the reverse. They continue to believe that - if only they can permeate the indifference of the public and the disdain of policy makers - they can make this into a better place, one that stands up to binding Jewish and universal measures. This quest for a decent country is probably the most pro-Israel act imaginable; it constitutes an undeniable demonstration of faith in its underlying values and its guiding norms. The second instrument of the anti-human rights lobby is more personal in nature: It centers unabashedly on the ad hominem - on who is involved in the protection of individual liberties and on those who give them support. This involves the amassing and distribution of long lists of individual activists and their organizational connections. It also entails detailing sources of funding, intimating that the European Union, its member states and certain foundations are by their very being suspect, and therefore their Israeli recipients are by extension tainted. Funding for human rights work here comes from many local as well as foreign backers. The list of these donors is readily available to the public, something that cannot be said of those leading the campaign against these groups, who lack a similar transparency. This guilt by association attack against the local human rights community is hardly a way of grappling with the veracity of its reports. The third prong of the campaign against these organizations deals not with why they engage in this work or with whom, but with how they do so. The periodic publications of key groups are usually debunked a priori as unbalanced because they focus only on Israeli violations. This critique is both facile and misleading: Israeli civil and human rights work is aimed precisely at ameliorating problems within the country's own purview. When this argument can no longer be sustained, attention then turns to the documentation presented by the various groups. This is dissected - as it should be - and then usually discarded as unprofessional because it is sometimes anecdotal, uncorroborated or unsigned. Most of the reports of human rights organizations here, however, stand up to the most exacting standards. A minority are not as systematic as one would desire or, because of the apparent anonymity of the witnesses (whose names are withheld to provide protection), difficult to validate. But even in these cases, this does not mean that the evidence they bring is false or that their results can be summarily disregarded. The fourth weapon of the assault on human rights groups centers on their impact. Intriguingly, the influence of their work is measured in political rather than in policy terms. The monitors complain that the publication of Israeli violations inevitably harms the country's reputation and standing. In the present era, external actors have their own independent data-gathering sources and are perfectly capable of perusing the local press and translating Hebrew publications. It is not the dissemination of any particular report that causes damage, but the policies that they describe. This is something that Israel can prevent or alter. In fact, the damage done by the constant vilification of the human rights community may outweigh the inconvenience caused by any given report. THE FOUR MAIN components of the current campaign against the human rights community mask a fundamental unwillingness to come to terms with abuses of human rights. At times, to avoid any constructive debate, these are juxtaposed to those of Israel's worst enemies, as if by proving that Israelis have undergone more, one exonerates one's own actions. Alternatively, the victims are blamed for their own distress. Unfortunately, what is palpably lacking is any compassion for the other - the most basic indication of an ethical commitment to a uniform standard of human behavior, especially in conflict situations. In this respect, the anti-human rights campaign is morally bankrupt. It has yet to evince concern for the violation of one human right or to demand protection of any human liberty. The watchdogs of human rights organizations, with their nonsubstantive approach to the issues at hand, do Israel no good. Civil society groups, like governments, must expect and even invite oversight. In turn, the self-designated supervisors of their activities, if they indeed act in good faith, should suggest ways to maximize the values of equality and respect for the other. If they don't, they undercut the fundamental faith in human dignity, which is not only the source of Israel's humanity but also the root of its very existence.