If humanity and human dignity are the source of human rights, belief in the equality of all humans is the starting point to promote human rights. As long as such a belief is lacking or is fragile, the approach of human rights organizations (HROs) will appear to be a matter only for the upper class. In fact, to make human rights principles part of a culture, HROs must understand the special characteristics of the community in which they work. This is the starting point for making a real change.
If humanity and human dignity are the source of human rights, belief in the equality of all humans is the starting point to promote human rights. As long as such a belief is lacking or is fragile, the approach of human rights organizations (HROs) will appear to be a matter only for the upper class. In fact, to make human rights principles part of a culture, HROs must understand the special characteristics of the community in which they work. This is the starting point for making a real change. If human rights are racialized, or seen as the specific privilege of a particular religion, HROs will not be able to fulfill their mission. When discussing the challenges posed to HROs in Israel, the first question must be about a common belief in equality.
In late 1998, I was working in an Israeli company for central heating. One day, while I was working in an Israeli house in Jerusalem, the woman of the house, who was dealing with me as if I was a mindless worker, opened a political conversation. It was not really a discussion, as my Hebrew language skills were weak. But mainly it wasn’t a discussion because she just wanted to tell me how bad our leaders were. She attacked the Palestinian Authority and the PLO leadership, especially President Arafat. She wanted to convince me that all Palestinian leaders were corrupt, and that they were not to be trusted.
Although, I have never supported President Arafat’s policies, including his methods of financial administration, her speech was very humiliating. At that time, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu was facing charges of corruption. So, when I wanted to put an end to her speech, I said, “If Arafat is corrupt, I am sure that he is not the only corrupt politician.” “What do you mean?” she asked. I replied, “What about your prime minster Netanyahu? Isn’t he corrupt also?”
Momentarily shocked, she suddenly started to shout. She called her husband from the sitting room and when she told him what I said, he too got angry. They asked me to get out of the house. The husband telephoned my employer and asked them to send a driver to pick me up in 10 minutes; otherwise they would call the police.
One week later, I was fired from the company, and they gave me no reason. Later, other workers informed, me that the family considered me a very dangerous Palestinian, and so did the company.
While the wife and husband were shouting and cursing, they kept repeating, “Who are you? You are nothing…” For me, the message was clear: I had no right to talk about Netanyahu, just because of my nationality. Undoubtedly, that Israeli family was familiar with accusations that the Israeli authorities and media were making against Israeli politicians at the time, but they could not accept that a Palestinian would criticize Netanyahu’s corruption. In their eyes ‘we’ were not equal. As occupying settlers talking to an occupied person we were not equal. In humanity, we were not equal.
This story underscores a question provoked by the essays by Jessica Montell and Ian Lustick: Is the Israeli community’s hostility to human rights due to their unwillingness to believe in the fundamental equality of all humans?
The strict, technical legal language of much human rights work that requires rephrasing local concerns to meet international standards undermines the work of HROs everywhere, just as in Israel, as B’Tselem director Jessica Montell points out. Such legalistic approaches expand the gap between HROs and their communities and threaten the credibility of HROs everywhere accordingly. In a society where the belief in equality is shaky, however, these obstacles are secondary factors. The root cause of the inefficacy of HROs in such a community is the lack of belief in the equality of all human beings.
Peoples’ hostility toward human rights is not necessarily a result of HROs taking the wrong approach. When half of the Israeli people are hostile to the human rights approach because it is seen ‘as a euphemism for Palestinian rights,’ as Montell recounts, the first question should be whether Israelis believe in human equality. Do common understandings of equality in Israel align with international standards? Is the notion of “equality” in Israel applied to others exactly as it is applied to Jews?
A human rights culture cannot exist in Israel unless all peoples, including Palestinians, are recognized as equal human beings. Once Palestinians are recognized as fully equal human beings, HROs will be able to work to challenge the systems in Israel that classify Palestinians as inferior beings who deserve subjection to colonization, institutionalized discrimination, and belligerent occupation. When this point is reached and equality is recognized, the insecurity, inherited fear, and hostility towards the human rights system that Montell describes will completely disappear.