Jews Must Defend Human Rights, Not Attack Them

Given the tragedies of Jewish history, I find it offensive both as a human being and as a Jew that Israeli parliamentarians attack human rights organizations.

The cabinet has approved a bill to limit foreign funding for political organizations that do not receive financial support from the state. The proponents of the draft law say nongovernmental organizations funded solely from abroad reflect efforts by foreign states to influence Israeli politics with a left-wing agenda.

The proposed law is likely to fall on issues of principle. But its contents show the ruling coalition's profoundly limited understanding of democracy. In effect, it attempts to shut down funding for any organization that does not fit the government's views, not only extreme left-wing organizations as implied: This bill jeopardizes even the operation of the Peres Center for Peace. In other words, the ruling coalition wants to shut down any opposition.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has claimed that the law is necessary, because foreign governments try to meddle in Israel's sovereignty. This is either cynical or shows a total misunderstanding of the very idea of NGOs and other human rights organizations. Their express purpose is to reign in the sovereignty of individual states and preclude the abuse of human rights.

International human rights organizations like Amnesty International are mostly funded internationally. They are based on the ideal that humanity as a whole has responsibility for what is done to humans everywhere. Most of them came into being after World War II, primarily because of the Holocaust. Humanity decided that the power of states must be curtailed to make the abuse of human rights more difficult. Unsurprisingly, Jews played a central role in setting up and strengthening the organizations that supervise what states do.

Given the tragedies of Jewish history, I find it offensive both as a human being and as a Jew that Israeli parliamentarians attack human rights organizations. How different would Jewish history have been if such organizations had flooded the world with information about what Nazis were doing to Jews starting in 1933!

Of course states like Iran and Syria do not want the world to know what they do to their own citizens; that is why they try to shut down the Internet in their countries and don't allow access to human rights organizations.

I am not, of course, comparing Israel with Iran or Syria. Unlike these tyrannical regimes, Israel should welcome public scrutiny of its actions. If Israel does not infringe on human rights, it has nothing to fear from human rights organizations. If it does, Israeli citizens and the international community should know about it.

While some human rights organizations, like the United Nations Human Rights Council, indeed have a deplorable history of anti-Israeli bias, to claim that the idea of human rights is being used specifically against Israel is preposterous: Human rights organizations have denounced countries ranging from Saudi Arabia and Iran to China. But they have also criticized the United States for its practice of extraordinary rendition, in which torture is outsourced to other countries, as well as for maintaining the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Organizations such as B'Tselem and Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence ) are trying to bring facts to public attention. Their core tenet is that Israel's citizens must know what is happening in the West Bank. They must then, through open discussion, determine whether they believe the expropriation of Palestinian land, restriction of Palestinians' freedom of movement, uprooting of Palestinian olive trees and other human rights violations are acceptable.

Lieberman claims that human rights organizations misrepresent the facts about Israel. If this is indeed the case, it must be proved using evidence. Trying to shut down these organizations will not get us closer to the truth. But is it a truth that Lieberman cares about?

The current coalition has a very limited conception of democracy as majority rule. It seems to have forgotten that a legitimately elected majority that crushes minority rights makes democracy illiberal. But maybe this is not an oversight. Lieberman's actions indicate that he sees liberal democracy and its institutions as a nuisance rather than an asset. He and his partners in Likud, such as MKs Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Danny Danon, are drunk with the idea of Jewish power and sovereignty: They want to crush any interference with this power, whether from within or without.

Israel's right-wing politics have changed catastrophically for the worse, as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said in a recent speech at Likud headquarters. The coalition's attack on NGOs is not directed only at what remains of Israel's left. It is an attack on Israel's character as an open society, on the critical discussion without which democracy is a sham. Only the light of truth can guide democracies responsibly; otherwise we move toward a totalitarian regime, for which the truth is an inconvenience to be manipulated for the purpose of consolidating unlimited power.

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