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Israeli rights groups don’t have to be popular to be effective

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Israeli human rights groups are under extreme pressure now from right-wing nationalists who view them as traitors to the Jewish people. Yet they must continue to fight for their principles, no matter what the public thinks. From the openGlobalRights debate, Human rights: mass or elite movement? עברית , العربية, Español, Français, Türkçe

Jessica Montell
4 August 2014

According to the well-known Israeli expression, “It’s better to be smart than right.” That is, better to get what you want than to stand on your principles. 

In the human rights context, however, this expression has only limited applicability. It is certainly useful to think strategically about how Israeli human rights groups might be more effective, and how they might shift public opinion toward greater support for their work.

However, there is a limit to how “smart” we human rights activists can be, when it’s our duty to say what we think is right.

Human rights organizations invariably defend the weak and marginalized, and are often vilified for so doing. It is rare, however, that a human rights organization is devoted to defending what many perceive as the enemy in national conflict. Such is the case with Israeli organizations addressing human rights in the Palestinian territories under military occupation. It is understandable that in such a situation, human rights organizations are targets of hostility from large sectors of Jewish-Israeli society.

This anger towards Israeli human rights groups is not new; we take it for granted, considering it an occupational hazard. Over the years, Israeli columnists have denounced us for aiding and abetting terrorists, civil society groups have tried to discredit our research and impugn our motives, and rightwing politicians have proposed legislation to restrict our activities. 

This month, the Israel-Palestine conflict has again deteriorated into a full-blown war, albeit one that is highly asymmetrical, and Israeli nationalist hostility has increased dramatically. Much of this is directed towards Israel’s Arab citizens, who are suffering physical assault, threats and other forms of intimidation. Nationalists have also attacked left-wing and anti-war demonstrators - Jews and Arabs alike - and have threatened human rights activists. 

It is too early to tell whether the events of the past few weeks signal a qualitative deterioration, or merely more of the same racism and intolerance we know only too well. In either case, the public atmosphere in Israel is worrisome, and must be addressed. Human rights organizations have been pondering for years how we might better engage the Israeli public with our message. Alongside advocacy to promote specific policy changes, many organizations have increasingly devoted resources to public engagement. We all have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, we write op-eds in the press, and we appear on every talk show that will have us. We speak in schools and universities, and offer the public tours to see the reality of occupation firsthand.

I believe these efforts are important. People need to hear and engage with our message, to see the human face of the suffering Israeli policies cause, to understand that there is an alternative to the racism and jingoism that is so pervasive. In our current reality, however, it is unlikely that these efforts will shift significant numbers of Jewish Israelis to join the ranks of human rights defenders.

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Hosam Salem/Demotix (All rights reserved)

A distraught Palestinian woman from the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City searches through the ruins and rubble of buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes as the current conflict continues.


Many in Israel and abroad bemoan this vilification of human rights organizations, and ask how we can build a larger constituency for human rights among the public.

To answer this question it is important to distinguish between support for human rights, and support for human rights organizations. Our goal is to promote the former, not necessarily the latter. If Israeli policymakers or the broader public shift their views on Palestinian rights, yet continue to vilify us, we will nonetheless have succeeded.

When I have consulted with public relations firms, pollsters and other experts on how to shape Israeli public opinion on human rights, their advice is invariably some version of “be smarter, even if you’re less right.” That is, they advise us to speak out against Palestinian violations more frequently; highlight issues that resonate with a majority of Israelis, such as Jewish settler violence against Palestinians, rather than more controversial issues like the military’s abuses.

To date, every human rights success in the Israeli-Palestinian context has been the result of an elite advocacy strategy

This advice has very limited application, however. If we are to remain true to the DNA of human rights, we must speak out even when it is very unpopular to do so. The current fighting in Gaza is only one of many examples. 

So do we have to be popular in order to be effective? If we are talking about effecting concrete policy changes, the answer is clearly no: to date, every human rights success in the Israeli-Palestinian context has been the result of an elite advocacy strategy – largely domestic legal challenges combined with international advocacy. This is the case with the abolition of routine torture in Israeli interrogations, the re-routing of the Separation Barrier along the Palestinian West Bank, and the halting of punitive house demolitions, a 2005 achievement which now appears to have been reversed.

If making change required convincing a majority of the Israeli public that torture is categorically prohibited – in a climate where torture was framed as crucial to prevent suicide bombings – I am afraid we would still have systematic torture until this day.

Of course, this is something of a tautological argument: because we do not have public support for our agenda, we have successfully made change in spite of the lack of public support. If a majority of the Jewish-Israeli public supported our agenda, making change would certainly be easier.

But then again, if a majority of the Jewish-Israeli public fully supported the human rights agenda, we would not have this entrenched system of military occupation to begin with.

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