The sweeping identification in Israel of “human rights organizations” with “leftist organizations” is a mistake. Even the left ignores the fact that human rights discourse is not their private domain. This simplistic approach blurs the hard core of the debate: What do Israel’s left and right actually disagree about?
Modern human rights discourse was the product of two revolutions England’s Glorious Revolution in the 17th century and the American Revolution in the 18th century and also of liberalism. None of these was “leftist.” Property rights are identified with the political right; freedom of expression is a bastion of both left and right. But as viewpoints become more extreme, the idea of rights loses its validity.
The French Revolution, which at first waved the banner of human rights, lost interest in them when it sent thousands to the guillotine. Karl Marx sneered at individual rights, and Marxism rejected this “bourgeois invention.” Only the moderate, social-democratic Western interpretation provided an opening for human rights discourse.
The same is true of the right. Extreme nationalism, fascism and Nazism disdained rights. But the democratic right, like the Conservatives in Great Britain and the Republicans in the United States, has faith in them. Ze’ev Jabotinsky insisted on “equal rights for [both] nations,” Jews and Arabs alike.
In short, in order to believe in civil and human rights, you have to be located to the right of Marxism and to the left of chauvinistic nationalism. You have to stay in sight of the moderate center.
Shortly before the start of the attack on Israeli human rights organizations, inspired by the Im Tirtzu association and led by the Yisrael Beiteinu party, we witnessed a vigorous attempt by right-wing organizations and settlers to argue that they had a human right to settle on the land of their forefathers and a civil right not to be forcibly evacuated. Warlike acts against the Palestinians were justified, among other things, on the basis of Israeli Jews’ “right to life.”
These arguments expressed respect for human rights discourse, or at least acknowledgment of it, even if temporary or manipulative.
The attack on the human rights organizations in recent months signals a retreat from support for this idea. Members of the far right, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and MK Michael Ben Ari (National Union), cannot adopt the doctrine of human rights in any case (not even in order to goad the Muslims, as the European right does). But it is more interesting to examine the large right-of-center public, which often demands its own rights. This public, adopting a simplistic description that has become widespread, believes the “human rights organizations” active in Israel are nothing more than “enemy rights organizations,” a fifth column.
That, therefore, is the real debate between the Israeli left and right today. And we are not referring here to the far left (which denies Israel’s right to exist) or the far right (which denies the rights of non-Jews).
Among the nonfanatic Jewish majority, the debate revolves around the following question: Is upholding human rights a sacred obligation or a dangerous luxury? Is the Jews’ right to life and national survival already so unassailable that we can afford to protect the rights of minorities, foreigners and even enemy nationals?
In the 1950s, poet Natan Alterman assumed that young, poor and threatened Israel was obligated to protect the rights of its Arab citizens. Writing about MK Tawfik Toubi, an Arab communist, he explained, “By right and not by grace does he sit in the parliament. It may be time to remember that, friends.”
But it turns out that we didn’t remember: There is still a debate raging here over whether Arab Israelis deserve all civil rights. And even more so over whether illegal immigrants and Palestinians under occupation have human rights that we are obliged to uphold.
The Zionist left believes that Israel is sufficiently strong, and that insisting on the rights of minorities and foreigners is a clear sign of its strength and justice. In contrast, the nationalist right assumes that Israel is too weak, and that fully recognizing the rights of residents of Taibe, Jenin or migrant neighborhoods would put an end to Israeli sovereignty. Thus on this issue, the left is more optimistic and no less patriotic than the right.
Nevertheless, there is something to the right’s arguments as well. Justice must be seen. Thus human rights organizations, especially those who deal with all sectors of society, must now emphasize what we thought was self evident: The rights of residents of Sderot, Beit Shean and Ariel are just as important, and just as grounded in universal rights discourse, as the rights of residents of Al-Araqib and Bili’in, or of foreign workers.
It’s vital to emphasize that we are also fighting here for the rights of the majority. And to explain, even as we do so, why minority rights demand a far greater effort.