A simple matter of incentives: “Israelis must learn the language of human rights”

by Yaniv Reich on February 18, 2010

Ha’aretz runs today a stunning and thoughtful article about how Israel must learn the language of human rights. Written by a media consultant and former adviser to the Interior Ministry, Gilad Heimann, the article manages to cut through Israeli social psychology and government hasbara efforts with admirable efficiency.

The core argument is this: Israel doesn’t have an image problem, nor an antisemitism problem, but rather a behavioral and conceptual problem in how it is willing to trade for pennies on the dollar, or shekel as the case may be, Palestinian (and increasingly Israeli) human rights in favor of “security”-based arguments. Without a fundamental change in Israeli understanding and protection of human rights, it is facing the real “battle for the country.”

The subtexts of this article are, as I count them, three. First, Israel is currently, at least partially, deaf to the language of human rights (“Most important, we Israelis must also be taught the discourse of rights. The better we understand that the world is not willing to accept the continual undermining of human rights for reasons of security, and the more we ourselves adopt the discourse of rights, the easier we will find it to present our viewpoint to the world.”)

Second, the increasing pressure on Israel in the form of negative media attention, legal battles, nonviolent protests, universal jurisdiction for war crimes, the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions!) movement, and so on, is starting to take a serious toll on Israeli attitudes. Israelis are accustomed to a small number of brave and well-known “leftist” journalists making such arguments, but they find themselves in unfamiliar ideological territory when “mainstream” figures such as this guy, or when retired judge Boaz Okon, or when Defense Minister Ehud Barak start to frame the discussion in terms of human rights, nonviolence resistance, apartheid, civic equality, etc. This shift is the clearest evidence that the goals and methods of the BDS movement are both morally right as well as effective (a point I credit to Ali Abunimah, @avinunu, via Twitter).

Third, even in this positive example of introspection, Palestinians are still not deemed fully human beings. It is not the case, from the perspective of Gilad Heimann in the article, that Israel must educate itself and defend human rights among the people it dispossesses and occupies because they are living, conscious agents, who are capable of the full range of human emotions, who think and contribute to the world, who bleed and cry when they die, when they are murdered. Nor should Israel stop violating Palestinian rights because, in violating the rights of human beings, it degrades itself in the process. No, in his perspective the rights of Palestinians must be protected because “the more we ourselves adopt the discourse of rights, the easier we will find it to present our [Israeli] viewpoint to the world.” Despite the important arguments the author raises, this sentiment reflects how far Israeli thinking must still travel to truly grasp human rights.

This article represents the future of debate in Israel, the US, and the wider Jewish community. You should/must read it.

You should also realize this type of self-awareness is not happening in a vacuum. We can assist this process—concretely and nonviolently—by supporting the ever-growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

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