There’s No Monopoly on Human Rights

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In an op-ed in Haaretz, IDI researcher Attorney Amir Fuchs welcomes the "Blue and White Human Rights" initiative of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, stressing that the fight for human rights in Israel should not be seen as the exclusive purview of the Left.

The Institute for Zionist Strategies recently announced the establishment of the Blue and White Human Rights Association, which is intended to protect human rights and promote discourse on human rights that stems from a national and liberal orientation. According to IZS's Hebrew website, this new body has the following goals: safeguarding human rights; improving efforts of Israeli authorities in the area of human rights by means of constructive criticism; breaking the far Left's monopoly on human rights in Israel; improving Israel's image; creating discourse on the role and conduct of human rights organizations today, and preventing the exploitation of the human rights issue to promote geo-political goals.

We should welcome the advent of this new organization, as we would welcome the establishment of any group that defends human rights and promotes public discourse on the subject. Naturally, we must wait patiently and cast a critical gaze in order to assess the actual impact of this new body on advancing human rights and to evaluate its accomplishments and agenda. For now, the organization presents itself as focusing on the following areas: protection of human rights at checkpoints, "purity of arms" in the IDF, and "moral medicine"—an initiative based on the notion that the State of Israel is obligated to implement the right to healthcare in an egalitarian manner for all populations, with no distinction based on religion, race, or gender.

Is it possible for someone who is committed to human rights to reject the establishment of such an organization per se? Evidently it is. In an op-ed in Haaretz on April 18, 2013, Yaniv Itzkovich maintains that the new organization's true goal is to make the occupation "kosher" and that its entire purpose is to serve the political interests of a specific minority group (the settlers). It should be noted that Itzkovich assumes that the organization is, in fact, capable of reducing infringements of human rights; for him, though, the establishment of the organization is a sophisticated move designed to weaken the Left and deflect criticism of the occupation.
One might infer from Itzkovich's words that the women of Machsom Watch are not really standing vigil at the checkpoints in order to defend the human rights of Palestinians; rather, they are there as a political protest against the occupation. Thus, without realizing it, Itzkovich is supporting an argument advanced by the far Right, which claims that human rights organizations are not really dedicated to human rights; rather, they are political organizations opposed to Israeli policy.

Is B'Tselem not an organization that has been established to minimize infringements of human rights?  Its website asserts: "As an Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem acts primarily to change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories and ensure that its government, which rules the Occupied Territories, protects the human rights of residents there and complies with its obligations under international law." Is that a bold faced lie? I prefer to believe that regardless of the fact that their activists are opposed to the occupation, B'Tselem and other organizations like it are truly interested in minimizing infringement of human rights and in increasing sympathy for the residents of the territories for as long as Israeli control of those areas continues. As I see it, this is true even if, as Itzkovich claims, it might "weaken the position of the Left," because the defense of human rights is a value in its own right, whether or not it advances a political agenda.

We should be thankful that an organization such as the Institute for Zionist Strategy, which has a right-wing and nationalist orientation, wants to renew the discourse on human rights, which has a solid foundation in the ideas of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. It is important for young people, teenagers, and soldiers to know that fighting for human rights—of all human beings—can be the goal of an organization that is on the right of the political map. The association that has been made between human rights and the Left is detrimental to the fight for human rights, as this connection turns a human, democratic struggle into a partisan, political battle. As a result of the Left's monopoly on human rights discourse, which has been encouraged by both the Right and the Left, right-wing politicians who advocate for human rights have become outcasts in their own parties, and even politicians in the Center think twice about the "patriotic-national" price they will pay for supporting human rights. Human rights are a critical asset for Israeli democracy. People on all sides of the political spectrum should champion this cause. 

Attorney Amir Fuchs is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, and is conducting research as part of IDI's Democratic Principles project.

This op-ed was originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz on April 24, 2013.