06 August 2007

06 August 2007 - Human rights lessons for Israel from South Africa

Tomorrow, I’m giving a lecture to the human rights group I’m working for about my experiences in South Africa. I’ve written up some rough notes, including a conclusion about human rights lessons Israel can learn from South Africa, which I’ve included below.

There are a number of lessons for Israel—both warnings, and recommendations. The first warning is that human rights are not all equal. There has to be a hierarchy of rights, even and especially when social needs seem more important than individual liberties. The right to life has to come first, followed by civil and political rights, and only then by social, economic and cultural rights.

The reason was pointed out long ago by Isaiah Berlin in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Many people, he said, believe that “negative liberty,” such as political freedom and property rights, only helps the rich. But if they sacrifice the “negative liberty” of the rich to achieve the “positive liberty” of the poor, they will end up by sacrificing the rights of all, and without achieving their original goal.

The second warning is that Israel, like South Africa, needs to move away from its dependence on the national government to provide for the country’s socioeconomic needs and lead its economic growth. It is hard to move away from central government when a country faces external threats and the military must play such an important role. But Israelis turn to the government on other matters, as well.

The result is a central government that controls everything and nothing at once. This creates a certain authoritarian culture in the public service, while creating anarchy at the fringes. In short, it turns people into hypocrites: everyone wants to enforce rules against others but break rules themselves. More room is needed for the market, for civil society, and above all for the individual man and woman.

The third warning is that minority rights have to be protected not only by strong legal and constitutional provisions, but by strong institutions outside the state. It may be important in the near future for Israel to create more explicit power-sharing arrangements and guarantees of minority rights for Arab citizens. These provisions will help manage some of the divisions within Israel, but they will not be enough.

Part of the reason the Afrikaans language is facing such great challenges today in South Africa is that Afrikaners relied heavily on political power to achieve their communal goals. The rights of minorities in Israel will only be protected when minority groups can take the initiative in creating and building independent institutions—not just organizations but communities, universities and the like.

Some of the lessons Israel can take from South Africa are positive ones. The first lesson is the importance of institutions to successful negotiating processes. I have done some comparative research on South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Israel. I have found that what the Israeli-Palestinian peace process lacked, and the other two had, were public, multiparty negotiating forums where dialogue took place.

In South Africa, there was the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), while in Northern Ireland there were the Northern Ireland Forum and the Belfast Assembly. These institutions often failed, but they succeeded in bringing the public into the peace process in a positive way. They also excluded violent parties and therefore helped reduce terror and violence by delegitimizing violence.

The second lesson is the importance of a constitution. Not every democracy has a constitution, because not every democracy needs one. The point is not the document itself—which is just a piece of paper—but what it represents, which is the limitation of the power of the central government. A constitution also describes the structure of the government, but its primary purpose is to prevent excesses of power.

Many people in Israel who support a constitution believe that it will help resolve questions about the identity of the state, as well as the place of religion. These are important goals, but they are secondary to the main goal, which is to remove power from the Knesset and place it in a higher, independent and legitimate authority. This will promote the rule of law, political stability and human rights in general.

The third lesson is the importance of reconciliation—something many Israelis already know, but which is perhaps too absent from Israeli public life. By reconciliation I mean a willingness to reach beyond conflict to interact with, live with, create with—people from the other side. We often see this in the arts, with “crossover” artists like Israel’s Idan Raichel or South Africa’s Johnny Clegg.

However, this kind of reconciliation can reach many other areas of life as well. In this regard I think the continued cooperation of Israelis and Palestinians on environmental issues is extremely important and is something to build on. More needs to be done—in areas of language education, inter-faith activity, and ordinary interactions between people from different backgrounds—to build a future for peace.

I want to close with a few final observations about the relevance of South Africa to the strategy of human rights workers in Israel. I have encountered three ideas during my time here that I believe are dangerous. I understand these ideas spring from frustration with slow progress in Israel, and from the hope that the South African example provides. But they are nonetheless incorrect, and problematic.

The first idea is that human rights organizations need to “internationalize” their issues by going outside of Israel to international legal forums and pressure groups. This is suggested in the belief that because international pressure helped bring about change in apartheid South Africa, it would be equally effective and appropriate to use here—especially since the Palestinians are under such pressure.

Putting aside the many other differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, the consequences of such a strategy would also be different. The main obstacle to peace in recent years has not been Israeli government policy but the failures of the Palestinian leadership and religious extremism on both sides. Pressure against Israel would encourage extremism and weaken negotiations.

The second idea is the contention that Israeli human rights groups, by participating in the Israeli legal system, are facilitating and legitimizing the occupation of Palestinian land. The suggestion is that they go on strike, refusing to appear even before the High Court of Justice. This, to me, would be a serious mistake, and not just because needy Palestinian and Israeli clients would be the first to suffer.

There are two sides to this conflict, and it is not just Israel’s fault that the occupation has continued. A strike would only make sense if the Israeli government and legal system were suppressing human rights organizations. In South Africa, unlike Israel, the apartheid government jailed, exiled, and even killed human rights activists—and they still persisted in representing their clients in court.

The third idea is that Israel should dissolve its identity as a Jewish state and become—perhaps together with the West Bank and Gaza—a single state of all its citizens, just like South Africa. Aside from my personal religious and political feelings on this issue, I believe this would be both a practical and moral error. Practical, because of the danger of continued violence and civil war in such a state.

Moral, because I believe that Israel has a special lesson to share with the world, a lesson it is not too late for Israel to learn, and teach. South Africa’s lesson is about the possibility of forgiveness—that people who have suffered can live and work wit, each other. Israel’s lesson is that history’s victims can, through their own efforts, redeem themselves. That is what Israel continues to mean to me and many others.

Both cases remind us that human rights must apply to everybody if they are to apply to anybody, that the weaker party in a conflict must accept the same moral responsibility as the stronger party, that negotiations only begin when both sides despair of using military force to destroy the other. I believe both Israelis and Palestinians understand these lessons today. The challenge is to take the next step.


At 1:54 PM, Blogger Redbeard said...

Could you clarify your concept of prioritization of rights a little? I have the following image in my mind, which must not be what you mean:

So, first lets check to see if everyone is protected from violence and death...nope, looks like some people are still in danger, so we better put the rest of our human rights program on hold until everyone is safe.

Ok, now that every person is guarunteed a long and healthy existence we can move on to the right to vote. Oops, looks like our voting system disadvantages some groups...better not worry about freedom of the press until we get this fixed...

I think you get my point. Rights are not absolute and we can't put off one because we haven't perfected another. So what does prioritization mean? Suppose we could put a number, 1-100, on the level of human rights of a certain kind. Suppose the number for security is 80 and the number for freedom of association is 55, and that we feel that in this instance they are competing values. What do we do? Do we further restrict association because security is a higher priority?

At 3:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you not think that small/limited government is an Obstacle to ambitious nation building projects like Zionism. Isn’t one of the biggest problem in Iraq weak government?

At 4:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Dont you think that limited/small government is an obstacle to ambitious nation building projects like Zionism.

Take Iraq today, the biggest problem is weak government.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Responding to Michael: I don't think one right cancels another, but that some must be attended to first. I think your hypotheticals need a bit of tweaking, because they are largely comparing "classic" rights, rather than juxtaposing civil/political with socioeconomic rights.

Responding to Mike: Small government does not mean no government. The first priority of any government is establishing a monopoly on force, which Iraq doesn't have yet. You are right that some aspects of nation-building might conflict with limited government, but the ultimate end of nation-building must be the fulfillment of members of the nation, not the abstract and not the state. This means government might need to step back a bit.


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