Decades of feminist and postcolonial critique have taught my generation of activists and scholars to perceive human rights as an instance of a patriarchal western discourse that holds phony claims to universality. We learned to struggle for diversity, instead of for a totalitarian universal that always leaves someone excluded. While undeniably holding significant political purchase and offering invaluable critical insights, we were also made to forget one important historical fact: That property-owning white males were perfectly content with their limited notion of rights before racial, ethnic and sexual minorities forced them to practice what they preach.
The implications of this theoretical and political amnesia are particularly dire in the Israeli/Palestinian context, where much of the day-to-day human rights work fails to expand the scope of rights beyond its current limits. It refuses to acknowledge, let alone address, the structural conditions stripping the claim for human rights from its own integrity.
With separate legal systems for Arabs and Jews, Jewish-only settlements, a system of racially-segregated roads and the complex setup of checkpoints and the Wall, it is hard to deny that Israeli policies in the occupied territories manifest a striking resemblance to apartheid, defined under the Rome Statute as a crime "committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime." While the situation inside ‘Israel proper’ is undeniably different - Palestinians in Israel are citizens with political franchise who enjoy certain civic liberties – it perhaps as not as different as some would like to think.
According to Adalah - the Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, over 50 Israeli laws currently infringe Palestinian citizen’s civil and political rights, access to land, allocation of state budgets and rights in the criminal process. Inequitable policies thrive allover: from courts to banks through ministries and private employers, in the education system and in the constant meddling of the security services in matters of everyday life. Israel’s citizenship law stipulates that every Jew in the world is an automatic candidate for naturalization, while Palestinians are denied of the right of return and their ‘abandoned’ property is bound to confiscation.
As citizens, members of the Arab minority are expected to “contribute” to the state just as their Jewish peers, for example by participating in civil-national service. However, they are in effect asked to subscribe to a collective project that excludes them by definition: a Jewish state, where only Jews can ever be full members with full citizenship rights.
The exceptional status of Jewish rights exceeds the borders of the little Zionist entity. The belief that a Jewish state is the only way to protect Jews from anti-Semitism enjoys nearly international consensus. As Lori Allen has shown, American support for Jewish immigration to Palestine was predicated upon closing the doors of the US itself to Jewish refugees. European powers were equally content with solving the Jewish problem outside their own borders (although, of course, the ‘Jewish problem’ was a European problem and not a Jewish one). With the bestowment of international legitimacy, Israel could finally establish itself as a state that conditions rights upon religious identity and still dares to call itself democratic.
Jessica Montell correctly identifies that most Jewish Israelis view the term human rights “as a euphemism for Palestinian rights”. However, she is wrong in assuming that the hostility towards human rights organizations in Israel derives from primordial sentiments. In fact, this is precisely where a formalistic notion of rights produces political myopia: Montell essentially argues that if “they” do not agree with “us”, it can only be due to their religious, national or ethnic particularity, which in turn demands that we make our universalism “resonate locally”.
Contrary to what some human rights activists may think, the Israeli public may be racist, but it is certainly not stupid. In fact, when it comes down to it, most Israelis understand quite well what Montell firmly denies: That in Israel/Palestine, only Palestinians have human rights. As Hannah Arendt astutely identified, when equality before the law is broken down, the very notion of citizenship is at stake. Then a split appears at the heart of the population: between citizens whose rights derive from their inclusion in the nation, and minorities and refugees who are no longer protected by the state.
In this context, human rights become the only shield protecting those stripped of their citizenship, and they are universal to the same degree that they are slim. So, when organizations like B’Tselem make heroic attempts to appeal to the Jewish Israeli public by “localizing” their universal discourse, they find themselves in front of a scorning choir: Israelis who know very well that their individual and collective rights do not derive from the same source as Palestinian rights.
Montell seems very sincere in suggesting, “If we are serious about reaching broader audiences, we need to engage in genuine dialogue with them, based on the understanding that we also are open to change”, but she provides no clue as to what this change might be. This is no accident. Most human rights activists in Israel cannot sustain the idea that they are not true universalists; that they are just as nationalist and ‘particularist’ as public they are trying so desperately to convince.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but in order to begin speaking to the Jewish Israeli public, Israeli human rights groups must begin dealing with fundamental questions, rather than avoiding them in a failed attempt to be loved. They should deal with the fundamental questions: How are Jews to live with Palestinians as equals, what would it mean to revoke Jewish privilege and undo the exclusive Jewish identity of the state. They must expand, rather then restrict, the scope of rights for which they are struggling. This means challenging each and every one of the laws listed in Adalah’s blacklist and actively advocating for the rights of refugees - including the right of return –that are continuously eschewed in mainstream human rights discourse in Israel. Only this kind of transformation would allow Israeli human rights activists to speak to the Jewish Israeli public. This time not as truth-advocates, but as equal members of a political community that, despite all fears and perils, must learn to change.