22 June 2007 - A free people
I was standing at the bus stop in Tel Aviv yesterday morning at 5:45, waiting for the #4 bus to rumble through the empty streets, when an ordinary car drove by in the opposite direction. The driver was a man with long, curly black hair, and as he drove he was being aggressively kissed by a gorgeous blond woman who was virtually sitting on his lap. The amazing thing was that he kept on driving straight.
Twelve hours later, I strolled through the empty streets of Emek Refaim, normally one of Jerusalem’s busiest districts. The road had been cleared for the Gay Pride Parade, and there were thousands of police on hand to prevent any violence with Haredi anti-parade protestors. The event apparently went off without incident, and the police joked with the marchers and each other as day wore on into evening.
There are certain aspects of Israeli life which are almost authoritarian. There is conscription—of both girls and boys—and then there is the dominance of religious authorities in family law. There is also, in the West Bank, an intricate system of control that prevents Palestinians from living what most of us consider a normal life (though it also may have prevented the Palestinian civil war from spreading).
And yet Israel is truly a freedom-loving nation. I don’t mean the astonishing openness of its politics, or the exuberance of its press, or the confidence of its judiciary. I mean the mores of the people themselves. Israelis have a certain swagger that Americans understand and admire. Taken to extremes, it leads to pushiness and recklessness, or worse—but it also fosters a robust, democratic spirit.
Defenders of Israel’s human rights record, myself included, often point out that it has a far better record than its neighbors (can you name another Middle Eastern country with a Gay Pride Parade?). But I don’t like such low expectations. In South Africa, they’ve let the government claim credit for achievements that sometimes predate the fall of apartheid (e.g. strong infrastructure) and rest on its laurels.
I think that Israel stands out even among democratic nations. And here perhaps my view is tainted by my strong personal and spiritual connection to the place. But a country where literally hundreds of thousands of citizens are armed to the teeth and yet so few people are killed by gunshot wounds has to have some unique quirk in its national character, some unique talent for combining freedom and responsibility.
My new colleagues at ACRI, whom I met today, might be inclined to disagree. I met them today, briefly, at their offices. I am going to be focusing specifically on human rights issues involving the occupied West Bank. I really am inhabiting the other side of the argument now—not intellectually, but vocationally. And I’m hoping to learn something, and perhaps even teach something. But it’s a tricky situation.
My boss at ACRI tells me that more and more Israeli human rights activists are picking up the apartheid analogy and using it to make their cases. I’m not opposed to that, because pointing out that a particular law or military order would have an apartheid-like effect is not the same as saying that Israel or its current policy is equal to apartheid; more importantly, it helps to defeat or prevent such measures.
What I do worry about is the imbalance. ACRI, like B’Tselem, does not criticize Palestinian human rights abuses, of which Hamas has been guilty dozens of times over in the past several days. They are focused on criticizing and stopping the bad things Israel does. That is good, as far as it goes—but it does not go far enough. It lacks historic context, strategic insight, political imagination, and even courage.
My new boss tells me that many people are getting so exasperated at the refusal of Israeli officialdom to acknowledge what is going on that they are considering taking their pleas to international tribunals. What a rotten idea. It makes me wonder if they have done enough to put their case forward, or—if so—whether some new, regional institution, connected to the peace process, might be more appropriate.
Human rights activism, all over the world, shirks responsibility for finding solutions. It is almost always a kind of crusade, couched in moral absolutes. The opposite extreme is no better; I can understand the exasperation of activists in cases where perpetrators and victims have been counterbalanced as if their role in a “conflict” was somehow co-equivalent. But something in between is the correct path.
The truth, it seems to me, is that human rights are actually empty. A right that is proclaimed to belong to everyone must still find a judge to enforce it. And if there is no (human) judge over the whole world, and such an omnipresent is not to be found, then the only way to enforce the right is for all of us to enforce it against each other. But if we did so, there would be no need to proclaim the right in the first place.
Look at the way so many so-called champions of human rights worship violence. Jimmy Carter continues to refer to Hamas as the democratically-elected government of Palestine (even after it defied and overthrew the democratically-elected executive). He recently blamed the U.S. for the civil war and said America should recognize Hamas because it is better than Fatah at imposing its will.
I digress. ACRI is set apart from the rest by the fact that it gives attention to the human rights of Israelis as well as Palestinians, even if it does not consider the culpability of the latter. My work in an organization that I disagree with in some respects at the outset is neither subversive nor impossible. It is a learning experience, which is the whole point of a legal internship, and the reason I am here.