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Human rights, “human beings,” and Israel

As a global political project, “human rights” has little resonance for most Israeli Jews. As Israel continues to fly in the face of hegemonic international norms, what can tip the balance? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. 

In much of the world, elites and even large numbers of people-in-the mass accept human rights as a “good thing,” something they support and want enforced. This much is clear from the Ron, Crow and Golden study of popular contact with human rights language, workers, and organizations. Whether or not those who expressed support for human rights would agree on what that should mean in their country, precisely, or whether those “rights” and those people Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International think should be protected are actually those who should be protected, are separate questions.

In the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man, the last survivor of the tribe is asked what tribal members called each other. The answer: “human beings.” So it is for most tribes. Human rights are fine, as long as it is understood that they do not apply to those who are not “us” since “they” are not really “human.” We may indeed expect that supporters of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Putin’s system of power in Russia, the Chavista regime in Venezuela, or the “sons of the soil”- oriented Malay government in Malaysia, would endorse the strengthening of human rights. However they are not likely to mean that rights to due process, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression should be more vigorously protected regardless of the political positions or ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation of particular individuals.

Jessica Montell’s analysis of the predicament of human rights work in Israel is striking because it shows that even this very thin idea of “human rights,” as little more than a phrase that has something to do with promoting elementary government respect for individuals, is not globally hegemonic. Israel may be rare, but as she indicates, for Israelis - or at least for those 76% of Israelis who are not Arabs - “human rights” does not appear as a politically neutral “public service announcement.” Instead, it sounds to them like a political weapon directed against the Jewish-Israeli tribe of “human beings,” rather than against its enemies.

In the fall of 2010, an American professor en route to a conference at the Hebrew University was detained and strip searched by Israeli security at a London airport. The Israeli airline El Al later apologized and compensated her, but offered no explanation for what happened. Subsequently, Israeli security officials explained to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that she was treated this way because they had mistaken her for a human rights activist.

As Montell suggests, part of the reason for the animus many Israelis direct against “human rights” as a campaign is the sense of insecurity they feel, subjected as they have been to a decades-long siege by neighbors who refuse to forget the injustices they feel Israel and the Zionist movement committed against them. Although many Muslim Middle Easterners may accept Israel as a fact, they don’t accept that Israel had a right to become that fact. Montell goes on to attribute some of the difficulties faced by the Israeli human rights movement, including her own organization, B’Tselem, to the insensitivity of her fellow human rights activists. They do not do enough, she contends, to engage those whose values are shaped by religion and who do not find compelling the legalistic and fundamentally liberal formulas that enshrine universal individual rights as a basic principle.

However, since the idea of universal human rights is based on a political doctrine—liberalism - working for human rights is always political. For this reason alone, the kind of “sensitive outreach” to traditionalist Israeli Jews that Montell advocates is unlikely to work.

Instead, it is only when Jewish Israelis see their interests at stake that they will support a human rights campaign. When Jewish Israelis genuinely feel that their life chances, and those of their families, are threatened by “human rights abuses” and by a government empowered to commit them, they will then have reason to listen and act in support of B’Tselem-type organizations. People interested in fostering human rights in Israel must somehow convince Jewish Israelis that they too will suffer as a result of regime policies that oppress those over whom it exercises control on the basis of nationality, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or political commitments.

Today, however, most Jewish Israeli elites and masses do not feel that way. They sense, correctly, that most of the world is united against their country’s policies and, by extension, against them. That both makes it impossible for “human rights” appeals to work in Israel today, but perhaps possible for them to work in the future.

This is the logic implicitly used by the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, along with many others, who seek to mobilize human rights sentiment against Israel in an effort to focus critical attention on Israeli policies. Of course there are populations in many areas of the world suffering much more than the Palestinians from war, racism, and injustice. That was also the case when world opinion focused on South African apartheid and the suffering it imposed on non-whites. What helps explains why Israel, like South Africa, is now the target of boycotts, international legal actions, and campaigns of delegitimization, is the uniqueness of the challenges these two cases posed - and still do pose - to global political culture.

White South Africa dared advertise itself as racist in a world that had otherwise agreed that racism was an abomination. Israel, similarly, maintains the longest and most controversial regime of belligerent occupation on the planet. In a world convinced that the acquisition of territory by war is absolutely unacceptable, Israel has also waged a sustained campaign to settle, confiscate, and annex the areas it conquered.

By flying in the face of hegemonic international norms, Israel, like South Africa, is heading toward pariah status. En route, Jewish Israelis struggle to understand why. Until they begin to believe that Israeli policies, rather than anti-Semitism, are the root cause of their problem, there is little hope for improvement in their lives, or those of Palestinians. And until then, there is little reason to hope that most Jewish Israelis will accept the claim that “human rights” efforts, which now seem directed solely against them, are in fact worth supporting.

When will the political doctrine of “human rights” have resonance for Israeli Jews? Not until they believe their interests are truly at stake.  

About the author

Ian S. Lustick is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Bess W. Heyman at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a specialist in Middle East politics and comparative politics in general, is the author of numerous books and articles on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

Ian S. Lustick هو أستاذ العلوم السياسية في قسم Bess W. Heyman في جامعة بنسلفانيا. وهو متخصص في سياسات الشرق الأوسط والسياسات المقارنة بشكل عام، وهو مؤلف للعديد من الكتب والمقالات حول إسرائيل والشؤون الاسرائيلية الفلسطينية.

איאן, ס. לוסטיק הוא פרופסור למדע המדינה באוניברסיטת פנסילבניה. הוא מתמחה בפוליטיקה של המזרח התיכון ובתחום הפוליטיקה ההשוואתית, ומחבר של מספר ספרים ומאמרים העוסקים בישראל והסוגיה הישראלית-פלסטינית.

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