29 June 2007

29 June 2007 - Human rights in Israel at a crossroads?

Earlier this week in Ha’aretz, Lily Galili wrote about the 35th anniversary of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and about the state of human rights activism in Israel more generally. As the occupation enters its fifth decade, ACRI and other groups are questioning their role and effectiveness. Are they merely a fig leaf for Israeli policy? Should they adopt a more radical course of action?

Amnon Rubenstein, a former Meretz leader, might argue that these are the wrong questions to be asking, and that activists should examine whether their politics are interfering with their principles. In two recent articles, he accused ACRI of using human rights as a “pretext” for a left-wing agenda, and suggested its recent submissions to international rights bodies were overly and unfairly critical of Israel.

I have to say that the human rights activists I’ve come across so far in Israel are almost uniformly patriotic. In addition to being warm and welcoming, everyone I have met has asked me enthusiastically whether I’m considering moving to Israel. At the same time, I’ve been struck by their sense of frustration with their work: they take pride in it, but seem to be wracked with doubt about its true worth.

They are not worried whether their criticism reflects poorly on Israel—quite the opposite: they are worried whether they are somehow complicit in Israel’s sins by participating in its legal system. For example, the fact that the Israeli government, and that defenders of Israel abroad (such as myself) often refer to Israel’s human rights culture as a mitigating factor seems to cause great consternation.

I’ve heard that Israel’s human rights organizations are even considering a boycott of the state—no more contact with the IDF or the Civil Administration in the West Bank or even the High Court of Justice, as long as the occupation continues. I guess the hope is that this will embarrass Israel and lead to a more intense campaign of international pressure that will result in Israel’s withdrawal from the territories.

This idea, it seems to me, is really awful. Strategically, it misunderstands the effect of international pressure. Many international human rights organizations today would be just as happy to see Israel disappear as to see the occupation come to an end. Israeli human rights organizations would quickly lose control of the agenda, and wake up to find they have weakened not only Israel but themselves within it.

The most direct victims of a boycott would be the very people that human rights organizations are ostensibly trying to help most—namely, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who would be suddenly voiceless. Ordinary Israelis would also suffer, since there would be no one left to take up human rights cases within Israel itself on the wide variety of issues that have nothing to do with the occupation.

Perhaps the most important reason a boycott by human rights organizations would make no sense is that Israel cannot, by itself, solve the problem of the occupation, even if it wanted to. Even if you believe one side is wrong and the other right, that one side is able and the other side unable to make concessions, there are still two sides, and a unilateral boycott would not address the dynamic core of the conflict.

One could understand the boycott idea if human rights activists were being harassed, arrested, beaten or killed in Israel. But this is not the case. In fact, the Israeli government does not interfere in the work of Israeli human rights organizations in the slightest, even though some of these organizations, like Adalah, are fundamentally opposed to the country’s basic identity as a Jewish state.

Ironically, it is on the Palestinian side of the Green Line that human rights organizations are prevented by the government from doing their work—not by Israel, but the Palestinian Authority. Yet no one seems to be internationalizing the cause of human rights in the PA (though one Israeli group, Shurat HaDin, gives legal assistance to Palestinians accused of being Israeli agents against the PA).

The boycott idea is really the latest version of a debate that erupted in the Israeli peace movement in the 1980s, before the first intifada, between those who argued change required outright opposition to the state and those who argued for reform from within. And that, perhaps, was just a re-hash of the debate between those supporting Jewish sovereignty in the 1940s and the binationalists who opposed it.

This impulse might seem to be a form of self-hatred that is at the same time self-indulgence to the point of extreme, self-destructive narcissism. Yorum Hazony, surveying the history of this phenomenon, argues that the Jewish radicals have won the battle of ideas within Israeli society, even though they have failed at every stage to shape the physical reality. Perhaps that is happening in this case, too. But why?

Perhaps one answer is a kind of religious impulse that persists even in secular Israel, and which has been strengthened by Israel’s connection to socialism—the idea that what is self-denying is more authentic, that what is difficult is more real. It takes a special act of will to oppose your own country, your own class, your own human impulses. Those who do not are viewed, from this perspective--and view themselves--as failures and frauds.

And perhaps another explanation is the failure of the Jewish/Israeli encounter with the Arab “Other,” which some have reacted to by asserting their will, and others have reacted to by shrinking from themselves. In other words, since the Palestinians can’t make peace or build a state, some Israelis want to go ahead with their own national project anyway, while others turn their frustration inward.

Either way is tragic, but only one retains the possibility of a future, more successful encounter. That doesn’t make occupation OK, but the correct response to Palestinian failure cannot be to cause Israeli failure as well. Human rights lawyers, like doctors, have a duty to their profession and their clients. That is the ethic that should guide Israel’s rights groups now. If they boycott, they may never recover.


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