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Where is the humanism in Israel?

Can human rights break past the self-interest of nationalism? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debates on Emerging Powers and Human Rights and Human rights: mass or elite movement? עברית.

Nationalism, a form of tribalism, is often an enemy of true human rights, humanitarianism, and humanism. Nationalism often results in the prioritization of one group’s well-being or desires above those of another group. 

The thoughtful and provocative essays on Israeli Jewish attitudes towards the human rights system by Jessica Montell and Ian Lustick reveal this fact in many ways. Montell, the director of one of the most respected and reliable Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, describes the “extremely hostile views toward human rights organizations and Palestinians' rights” that many Jewish Israelis express. For this one-third to one-half of the population, human rights are perceived to be not universal in practice. They see them, instead, as the particular claim of Palestinians against Israel, Israeli security, and the Israeli nation. For them, Israel’s security requires and justifies abuse of Palestinians. In this nationalist logic, Palestinians’ rights are not as important as those of Israelis. It’s us or them. 

Israelis, of course, are not exceptional for being nationalistically prejudiced. The United States - its political class as much as its people - also prioritizes whatever is defined as “our interests,” even if it is dressed up in a humanitarian language of benevolence towards the world.

During the years leading up to the creation of the State of Israel, when the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were still fresh ideas, Zionist activists in the United States and elsewhere relentlessly beseeched U.S. President Harry Truman for support of their cause. A common theme in the correspondence among these men was the humanitarian need to assist Jewish displaced persons, people suffering from the atrocities of World War II.  They demanded that Palestine, then still under British mandatory rule, open its doors to 100,000 immigrant Jews.

Truman, eager to garner the political support of Jewish voters in those electioneering years, repeatedly called for Britain to issue 100,000 certificates for Jews to enter Palestine. Truman’s PR people framed the President’s efforts on behalf of the Zionists as attempts “to serve the humanitarian needs of the world,” which is how a presidential secretary described it in a letter to a Zionist lobbyist in 1946. Opinion polls in the United States at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported the opening of Palestine’s doors to the Jews. At the same time, they were decidedly opposed to making their own national home a refuge for these people, fearing that an influx of poor immigrants would cause a strain on the American economy.

Mostly ignored in these discussions was the effect of such a policy on Palestine’s native Arab inhabitants. Palestinians did try to present their own claims to national independence. In their view this was their “natural right,” justified by thousands of years of continual residence in Palestine. Their spokesmen recognized the horrendous sufferings of the Jews during World War II, but since Europe was the source of that tremendous crime, they believed Europe should produce the solution. Not a solution that came at the Palestinians’ expense. 

But for Truman and many Americans, Jewish nationalism ranked higher. Zionists’ claims superseded those of the Palestinians, and the self-segregating state for Jews was founded in 1948. In so many instances throughout history nationalism has been an enemy of universal human rights. According to Montell’s data, Israeli nationalism has thwarted any sense of humanism among much of its population that would protect and foster the rights (to justice, freedom, security) of all humans. Including Palestinian humans. Montell’s response to this challenge to her work as a human rights activist is to be more responsive to local concerns. 

Ian Lustick’s response to the dilemma is rather different, and partakes more explicitly of a nationalist logic. His suggestion for those working on behalf of human rights in Israel is to “convince Jewish Israelis that they too will suffer as a result of regime policies that oppress those over whom it exercises control.” The message Lustick, a political science professor, believes will be most persuasive is, “Don’t abuse others’ rights because it’s bad for ‘us.’” And the “us” is defined explicitly as “Jewish Israelis,” with distinct and unquestioned Jewish Israeli interests.

Instead of advocating for a greater humanism among Jewish Israelis, once again the “us over them” framework ignores the claims, rights, and humanity of Palestinians. To be fair, Montell and Lustick are clearly trying to take a pragmatic approach to enhancing respect for human rights in Israel, based on their particular understanding of Jewish Israeli society.

Instead of appealing to nationalist chauvinism, however, why not call for a state curriculum that promotes a culture of universal human rights in Israel?  Might that also be a pragmatic move? There are plenty of donor countries who seem eager to fund human rights education elsewhere, why not Israel?


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