Under Fire, Israel Must Still Stand Up for Human Rights

Israel's human rights community and their supporters are committed democrats and also patriots – even when they must implicate or criticize the Israeli military's abuses of power.

Brian Lurie
Brian Lurie
Rockets being fired from the Gaza strip into Israel, on July 13, 2014. Under fire, it may be difficult for some to understand the necessity of human rights group.
Rockets being fired from the Gaza strip into Israel, on July 13, 2014. Under fire, it may be difficult for some to understand the necessity of human rights group.Credit: AFP
Brian Lurie
Brian Lurie

Now, again at a time of violent conflict, there is a concerted effort by some in Israel to disparage and discourage the work of Israel’s human rights groups. Several Negev mayors signed an ad in the Jerusalem Post addressed to me, asking the New Israel Fund to refrain from supporting this work.

The nature of human rights work, especially during conflict, is hard for some to understand. From where I live in San Francisco, I cannot pretend that I fully appreciate the rush to bomb shelters under the threat of Hamas’ long-range rockets. Nevertheless, I remember how it felt to live in Jerusalem for several days during the Six Day War, being in and out of bomb shelters. Again in 1990, I sat in a sealed room during Saddam Hussein’s attacks on Israel. Therefore, I have great sympathy for what Israeli civilians are now enduring and I join others in loathing Hamas’ strategy of indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. Were it not for the Iron Dome, the casualty rate on the Israeli side would be much larger. I am thankful for the foresight that put this protection into place.

The NIF's support for Israel’s human rights organizations in no way contradicts our condemnation of Hamas’ tactics. Rather, it flows from our commitment to Israeli democracy. Human rights watchdog groups operate in every democracy worldwide. They ensure that there is an independent voice reporting on government activity and they serve as a check and balance on potential abuses of power. Every democracy should have its own human rights community examining the behavior of its military. If there is no such mechanism operating in Gaza, then that is just another black mark against the Hamas regime.

Moments like this one test the character of society. When human rights groups are ignored, silenced or are not allowed to do their work, societies fail the test. Nations like Russia, Egypt and Iran prohibit, limit or defund human rights activities, and that behavior is an infallible signal of anti-democratic and authoritarian intent. Israel aims higher than that.

Because human rights abuses are more common in the chaos of war, the role of human rights organizations is all the more important during those times. Many of their reports will implicate or criticize military behavior, which of course angers many Israelis. This is particularly true when the IDF is moving against Hamas in Gaza, where the difficulty in discerning legitimate military targets amidst a crowded civilian population is a recipe for tragedy and disaster, as we saw with the loss of so many young children in this latest conflict.

No matter how unpopular the work of ACRI, B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights and other Israeli watchdog groups, no matter how painful and difficult their reportage may be, NIF will not back away from our support for them. Israel’s democratic character and future is too important to us. Israel’s Military Advocate General and other officials have acknowledged that these reports change military operations for the better. After Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the IDF specifically credited B’Tselem’s information as a factor in changing operational procedures to better protect civilian lives and property.

Some of the Israeli leadership’s distaste for human rights activity comes from the fallout from the Goldstone Report, which first accused the IDF of deliberately targeting civilians and whose principal author then backed down from that claim. As it happens, when that report came out, some human rights groups we support actually objected to that particular conclusion and said that it was not substantiated by the evidence. And, despite the well-funded lies from extremist organizations associated with the ultranationalist right, the Goldstone report was almost entirely based on publicly-available information and statements by the Israeli government and military sources. Had the Israeli government launched its own investigation of Cast Lead, as had been done for every military operation preceding it, the Goldstone Report might not have happened or at least would have been contextualized.

The reports generated by human rights organizations are always publicly available and are thus sometimes used by Israel’s enemies to attack it. This happens to every democracy; my own country was implicated in the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison because of information gathered and disseminated by our ACLU and there was worldwide outrage as a result. Attempting to silence human rights organizations because their output does not always help Israel’s image is shortsighted. In the long run the fact that Israel has a critical human rights community ensures that friendly allies understand that it is still a liberal democracy with safeguards in place to guide its own behavior.

While reports issued by Israeli human rights organizations receive coverage and attention across the globe, we at NIF strongly believe that the most important audience for Israeli human rights organizations to address is their fellow Israelis, including the Israeli judicial system. Israel has a free press, involved citizenry, a strong and independent judiciary, and a track record of official commissions and committees of inquiry. Reports of wrongdoing must be presented there. We disagree with organizations now calling for international intercession, especially before Israel has even has had a chance to examine its own decisions and activities.

We also object to, and will not fund, any organization filing a lawsuit outside of Israel attempting to bring Israeli officials to trial in foreign courts. As the leading organization working for democracy and equality in Israel, our job is to work with Israelis seeking to strengthen democratic institutions, including the judicial system and commissions of inquiry.

At the end of the day, the human rights community of Israel and their supporters are also patriots. Their work is extraordinarily difficult at times like this. We want to hold Israel to the standard it has set for itself as a liberal democracy with a moral army that respects human life and as a nation that searches its own soul in even the most difficult of times to ensure the fundamental decency of its actions. The NIF is committed to helping Israel be the liberal democracy envisioned by its founders. That’s why we will always stand by Israel’s human rights champions.

Rabbi Brian Lurie is President of the New Israel Fund.

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