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Liberal Israeli human rights organizations need to learn how to listen

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Liberal human rights organizations in Israel are not very good at listening. Indeed, there is a widely-held assumption that the work of human rights organizations is always good and important. In this contribution, I explain how their failure to listen to Palestinians in particular is having negative consequences for the realization of human rights and social justice in the region. I also explain how it would be productive for these liberal organizations to learn from the history of other social justice struggles, such as in South Africa.

For decades, as a human rights lawyer and scholar, I have followed the work – generally with admiration – of liberal Israeli human rights organizations critical of Israeli policies against Palestinians. These organizations have sought to influence policies, represent victims and build awareness within Israeli society. However, with the notable exception of B’tselem, who has refused to cooperate with Israeli military investigations, they generally lack a critical perspective, let alone question their approach to legal advocacy.

As communicated to me directly by the representative of one of these organizations:

“(Our organization) is consistent and uncompromising in our articulation of international law norms … we strive to change Israeli practice … We are a human rights organization with an emphasis on administrative and legal assistance to individual victims of the Israeli occupation. … We must engage with the Israeli legal system, with the military and with government officials. 

In (our organization), Palestinians have an advocate who works to disrupt the occupation wherever we can … You can argue that within the larger context of entrenched occupation our impact is trivial – but it is not you who are denied the freedom to travel or live in fear that your family will be torn apart. 

I honestly don’t know what will bring about the end of the occupation, which of course is necessary for Palestinians to enjoy all their rights.”

As reflected in this message, most of the leadership within these liberal organizations fail to truly listen to Palestinians. They also lack a real strategy of legal mobilization. Worst of all, they continually assume that they know what Palestinians think, how Palestinians feel and indeed what Palestinians experience.

There are consequences from the double-speak of these organizations, pretending that the work they do is more meaningful and effective than it really is. I will highlight two.

Failing to acknowledge apartheid

The first is that these organizations fail to acknowledge a general situation of apartheid within all areas under Israeli control. As confirmed in the passage above, a common strategy of liberal Israeli human rights organizations is to: “engage with the Israeli legal system, with the military and with government officials”, generally with exclusive attention to the West Bank and Gaza.

Why is the second-class treatment of Palestinians, including in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, not described as a situation of “apartheid”? Why is there no mention that there is no such thing as Israeli nationality and the structural consequences of this for those who lack Jewish nationality? This legal position has been affirmed by the Israeli Supreme Court, comprising the legal roots of why Israel enforces both normative and institutional discrimination. Hence, without acknowledging these deep structural problems, a policy of “engagement” with the Israeli regime is futile.

As noted in the passage above, to be “consistent and uncompromising in (their) articulation of international law norms” fails to acknowledge the social and political context in which international legal norms are routinely violated. Far from condemning the “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime,” which is the very definition of apartheid, these organizations routinely excuse it.

This brings me to the second example.

Legitimating Israel’s security regime

Emphasizing, as in the passage above, that “Palestinians have an advocate who works to disrupt the occupation wherever we can,” these organizations focus on individual suffering, while failing to address the bigger picture. Accordingly, they legitimate a military and quasi-judicial regime, including military detention and interrogation, which is frequently aimed at children. It is a regime that has routinely demonstrated no intention of ensuring that the treatment of Palestinian children, let alone Palestinian adults, is in compliance with international law.

Why was there limited attention by these same organizations to condemn Israel’s hideously disproportionate treatment of Ahed Tamimi, a teenage child who received an eight month prison sentence for a minor offense of insulting and slapping an Israeli soldier? Tamimi’s harsh sentence contrasted so profoundly with the treatment of Elor Azaria, an adult Israeli soldier who walked free in May after serving nine months of a 14-month jail term for the manslaughter of Abdul Fatah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron.

So how, you might ask, might liberal human rights organizations do things differently? Here, it can be instructive to learn from the history of the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

Lessons from the South African anti-apartheid struggle

It is a quaint thing to say, but recognizing one’s privileges and learning the lessons from other social justice struggles can be instructive when there is an incapacity to listen. As a starting point, it is crucial for Israeli organizations to take seriously the message of Palestinian intellectuals, who are leading the struggle against Israeli oppression and domination, rather than simply assuming they “understand”.

Like liberal white organizations such as Lawyers for Human Rights, Legal Resources Centre and the Detained Persons Support Committee did during the South African anti-apartheid struggle, it can be helpful to reflect on the words of black South African intellectuals such as Stephen Biko. In 1970, he addressed to liberal and well-intentioned white South Africans during that country’s period of apartheid:

“The South African white community is a homogeneous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so. Where differences in political opinion exist, they are in the process of trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power.

Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. … The integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that it is a response to conscious maneuver rather than to the dictates of the inner soul.

As a result the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening.

Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination … (there will arise) a true integration.”

True integration comes from solidarity

Biko’s critique is followed by a hopeful message of “true integration.” This is reflected in the work of an Israeli social justice advocate Ronnie Barkan. Aware of the limitations of mainstream liberal thinking, Barkan listens – critically and reflexively – to the social justice struggles of Palestinians. And then he responds. Barkan has confronted Israeli law makers and human rights organizations Israeli law-makers and human rights organizations during a discussion on human rights, accusing them of hypocrisy, and he has explained why.

Such bold and truly uncompromising actions reveal solidarity with the ceaseless efforts of Palestinian advocates in the BDS movement, such as Omar Barghouti.

Israeli liberal human rights organizations could learn a lot by listening to Barghouti and Biko, pursuing solidarity (as Barkan does), rather than persisting – unsuccessfully – to speak on Palestinians’ behalf.

Correction: This post originally incorrectly stated that Ahed Tamimi had been released. She has not been released yet. The court rejected the appeal to release her on time served.

Jeff Handmaker

Jeff Handmaker is a member of the teaching and research faculty at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University in the Netherlands. During the early 1990s he worked in South Africa for a legal human rights organization.

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4 Responses

  1. Liz on June 7, 2018, 10:06 am

    A brilliant piece–thank you. This limitation of liberalism is dangerous and, as you say so well, ends up upholding the status quo and normative thinking without ever recognizing it’s doing so–because it feels so good about itself.

  2. on June 7, 2018, 1:33 pm

    Interesting insight – thank you Mr. Handmaker

  3. Misterioso on June 8, 2018, 3:00 pm

    Haaretz May 27, 2018

    “What It’s Like to Be an Arab in Israel”

    “Not so long ago we were still afraid to walk down European streets identified as Jews, and now, with a truncheon at our belt in our own cities, we instill terror in others​.​”

    By Iris Leal

  4. tony greenstein on June 8, 2018, 4:19 pm

    Although many of the criticisms of liberal human rights groups are correct, the question is whether or not they are a plus or a minus. to a nswer that question we only have to see the reaction of Netanyahu to human rights NGOs. He does everything possible to clamp down on them Of course they are not anti-Zionist and have many weaknesses but even given that the work they do is still helpful. Just as in South Africa the liberals may have often been problematic but not having them wouild not have been a boon.

    The article talks about ‘ They also lack a real strategy of legal mobilization.’ which begs the point that in an apartheid state there can be no legal mobilisation because the courts are colonial courts and even their room for manouvre is limited.

    The tweet from Ronnie Barkan, whom we all admire, that ‘ I dare to say that these may be the greatest threat to Palestinian rights, along with Israel’s leading/most successful tool of propaganda – Haaretz newspaper.’ is ultra leftism. Ha’aretz performs a valuable service abroad in providing coverage of much of what happens. Of course it is a liberal Zionist paper but with anti-Zionists writing for it. To close it down, which Netanyahu would love very much, would be of no help to the Palestinians.

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