Brokenness and hope: in this week's Torah portion and in our lives
RHR2010: How Long Before Indefinite Detention Without Charge Becomes Permanent Betrayal of Our Values?

RHR2010: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I almost didn't make it here in time -- I hadn't read the conference schedule closely enough, and went to the facility where tomorrow and Tuesday's events will be taking place instead of to tonight's venue! (The doorman at the other facility told me that several lost rabbis had stopped in as I did, baffled about why no one else was there.) But here I am -- hooray. I arrived at the beautiful Bnai Jeshurun sanctuary in time for R' Shawn Zevit's beautiful opening song ("For freedom's never-ending spark / Light one candle in the dark..."), a powerful prayer on behalf of the mourners and those impacted by the horrible Carmel fires, and the lighting of Chanukah candles.

Conference Opening Plenary: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu

This session features Iain Levine, Human Rights Watch; Dr. Naomi Chazan, New Israel Fund; and the Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman.

"This is an important subject," says Holtzman. "Many of us understand that there are serious issues with regard to human rights, civil rights, civil liberties in both Israel and the United States. Here, we see that some of the most serious crimes -- torture, illegal surveilance, illegal treatment of detainees, illegal war-making have been left unaccountable. In Israel we see other kinds of assaults on civil liberties."

Holtzman describes our first speaker, Dr. Naomi Chazan, as one of the great Jewish women thinkers of our times. "She [Chazan] was a pioneer in dealing with women's rights and improving the status of women in Israel," Holtzman tells us, as Chazan founded the Israel Women's Network. "Naomi's a very courageous woman; I remember sharing a sealed room with her when Sadam Hussein's scud missiles were being launched at Israel." Chazan is being demonized in her own country, Holtzman says, and that is simply appalling. The crowd applauds for her and her work.

Dr. Naomi Chazan begins her formal remarks by saying, "I'm here tonight to challenge us all."

The biggest challenge to Israel-- since 1948 and before -- is that right now, it is clear that the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel is on the verge of bringing about two separate and equally pernicious processes. The first is the inability to resolve the conflict, and without resolution of the conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel's ability to integrate into the region and to survive is going to be well-nigh impossible. And on the other hand, the continuation of the occupation is eating away at the moral fabric of Israeli society and threatening its democratic character and the values that underlie its existence. If it continues much longer, [Israel] will implode.

These dual challenges, Chazan says, are integrally related; they are two sides of the same coin. Her voice shakes as she says this; it's clear that she is desperately pained by this analysis. She begins first with the challenge of the inability to resolve the conflict. "This has been going on for 43 years, for 62 years, maybe for a century," she says. "But we are now at the point where it has to be done." President Obama is aware of that, and has put many good efforts into achieving this goal -- and she thinks that even Binyamin Netanyahu understands that without a Palestinian state alongside Israel, "Israel will not persist as a democratic state with a Jewish majority. But Benyamin Netanyahu has fallen in love with negotiations. Negotiations require closure, and he has not fallen in love with closure." So what does one do?

"There are two strategic questions that one must address," Chazan says. "With all due respect to everything we do on the ground, it is the responsibility of human rights activists to see the larger picture, to ask the strategic questions, and to give answers. The immediate strategic question is, how can it be possible to make the non-negotiations that are taking place now work?"

Chazan believes it is possible for the negotiations to work if four things happen. "One has to understand that the negotiations that started and have stopped now and may start again have followed the same pattern since September of 1993." If you keep doing the same thing, she argues, and it never succeeds, there is no earthly reason to believe that doing it again will make a difference! But four things might change the situation. #1: the composition of people at the table must change. It needs not to be only bilateral or trilateral including the US; "we need Europe and possibly also the UN at the table." #2: change the format. "Diplomats, mostly men, love to talk to each other in closed rooms -- while everyone outside is spreading rumors about what's going on in the closed room. But closed room negotiations don't work, as Wikileaks has proven, anymore! We must make the format of negotiations transparent and inclusive."

#3: the process, which "exists as if it is holy," but the process is not holy -- "only the outcome is holy." There is no time, she says; no time for a two-state solution to emerge. We need a hurry-up offense. "And the 4th element is the most important." The five permanent settlement issues -- Jerusalem, settlements, borders, etc -- have been the same for all these years. But who decided that these 5 issues were the only issues? "What is missing -- even though we know we're going toward a two-state solution, along the 67 borders with some adjustments, with Jerusalem as a capitol for both states -- no one has dealt with the issue that these are two traumatized peoples! We must bring reconciliation onto the table now."

Can you imagine, she asks, what could happen if an Israeli prime minister got up and said, "In 1948, which was the celebration of our independence, we contributed to the creation and dispossession of the Palestinian people and to making hundreds of thousands of refugees, and we want to say we're sorry"? Can you imagine what that would do toward resolving the refugee problem, toward changing the climate of the conversation?

A good strategist would also ask: what if the negotiations are not resumed? Then how do we reach the goal of ending the Occupation? "It's a tremendously important question," she says, "because we're running out of time, and the alternative to a 2-state solution is a calamity of monumental proportions for both peoples."

We must start thinking about how to bring about a 2-state solution in other ways. Some have argued that the Palestinians should go to the UN and ask for a declaration of a Palestinian state -- which would force the Israelis to join them at the negotiation table. A second alternative is the recreation of an international trusteeship, which was done in East Timor not long ago, which would end the occupation before the creation of a Palestinian state. "I want to challenge you on this side of the puzzle," she says. "We will spend another 30 years dealing with human rights issues relating to the occupation and to the humiliation of another people, and we need to put at least as much energy into that as we do into resolving the conflict. But there is another side of the coin. Israel's democratic character is under assault in a way that no one remembers since the creation of the state of Israel."

"Democracy has always been in my mind the key to Israel's survival -- such a rambunctious, diverse, opinionated, contentious society!" What has allowed us to thrive, she says, is that we have had the most inclusive democracy that I know. Racists, fascists, conservatives, centrists, socialists of all kinds and beyond -- all in a 120-member Knesset, and each member of Knesset has at least 2 opinions! It's an immense achievement. "For the first time in my lifetime, I feel that Israeli democracy -- I know that Israeli democracy -- is under threat. The rights of Israel's minorities are being challenged daily, in the press, on the street, in the Knesset through legislation. It is an embarrassment for all of us, because I don't have to tell you that as Jews, we cannot for one minute treat our minorities the way we were treated elsewhere in the past." That brings applause from around the room. "Different voices are being muzzled on a daily basis in Israel," she says. "Freedom of association and freedom of speech are being challenged in Israel, and people are being asked to close their minds and to close their mouths. What a horrible thought."

"The nature of discourse in Israel is changing...the question is now, are you with us or are you against us? If you offer an alternative voice, you are dealt with as an enemy from within. What a terrible thing to happen." The rules of the game, Chazan says, are changing. Democracies are about disagreements; we don't need democracy when we all agree with one another! They succeed in lasting because there is agreement on the rules of the game. But in Israel, she says, we are losing agreement on the rules of the game. Another challenge to democracy in Israel is the challenge of losing the diversity of civil society. "I'm a political scientist," Chazan says. "Democratic societies rely on pluralistic civil institutions, and they're trying to change that." Without the pluralism of Israeli society, then Israeli society will not be democratic. "Some people are saying that maybe democracy is not that important. 65% of Israelis think it's important, but 35% said that if it's a question of survival vs. democracy, then they prefer survival. Can you survive without democracy?" Chazan asks. "Tell me -- is it worth it?" Her answer: no.

"Therefore, the second challenge, interrelated, is that one must do everything to ensure the essential value-driven objective of saving and protecting and safeguarding Israeli democracy and the profound belief in equality and social justice and tolerance and respct for the Other. That's what we're all about."

"Jewish identity in Israel, and in the United States: Jewish identity, in the second part of the 20th century, and in the 21st century, is the ability to wed the Jewish heritage to liberal values," Chazan argues. "That's what being a Jew today is all about. And therefore, one cannot separate the two elements! They are together." Israel, she says, faces the dual challenge that we as Jewry face. The world faces this dual challenge. "We have to resolve the conflict; we have to salvage our democracy; and we will not be able to do one without doing the other."

Iain Levine begins by saying, "There's clearly a lot to be depressed about when we talk about human rights in the age of Obama and Netanyahu." Much has gone backwards in the last 10 years, particularly since 9/11 -- "but we have achieved a lot in the last 20, 30, 40 years," he argues. "We have been in our lifetimes, as human rights activists, extremely marginal. We have been derided, regarded as cranks, not been at the table -- even not been at the room. But much has changed, such that human rights is now seen in many settings as an essential part of managing peace and security." Just 5 years ago, he reminds us, Kofi Annan -- then about to leave the UN as Secretary General -- said that the UN system rests on three pillars: peace and security, development, and human rights. Without peace and security, there can be no development; without development there can be no peace and security; and without human rights, neither peace and security nor development is possible.

But since 9/11, the US has lost most of its capacity to provide global leadership on human rights issues because of our record of torture, indefinite detention without trial, and other egregious derailings of human rights. "It's almost impossible to overstate the stain on the US's reputation," he says, and that also impacts what happens around the world. There have been improvements under Obama, though not as much as we had hoped. We have pledged not to use torture, but Guantanamo Bay has not yet been closed down, and we do not yet have a just and effective system for trying terror suspects. "In addition, the US has still not ratified, e.g., the Convention on the Rights of the Child," which has been ratified by every other functioning government in the world.

So when US diplomats speak to governments around the world, in places like Congo and Sudan, "their ability to criticize other governments for their acts of torture, illegal detentions, or a host of other human rights violations are extremely limited." This is a problem not only for Americans (Levine himself is British) but for the world, because the world needs powerful government pressuring others to act in accordance with human rights, and because our own record is so lousy, we can't pressure others to behave ethically.

"At Human Rights Watch we see this every day," Levine says. Because the org is based in the US, though it espouses universal standards, government officials and NGO activists and journalists around the world ask them what they have to say about the US -- and frequently Israel -- before there can be a discussion of their own problems. "Some of this is an effort to distract us from talking about their violations," he acknowledges. "But violations of human rights by the US, and by its close ally Israel, casts a very long shadow -- way beyond the direct impact that these violations have on their direct victims."

The lack of accountability for torture by US officials, or the lack of accountability for the crimes committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead, make it easier for the government of Sri Lanka to resist accountability for their war crimes, Levine argues. Chazan said that reconciliation must take place; Levine suggests that we must add accountability, because without accountability, there can be no peace process.

Human Rights Watch acts in 90 countries around the world, but faces more criticism for its work on Israel than its work in the other 89 countries put togther. "Israel of course has not only the right to protect and defend its citizens, but the obligation to do so," from suicide bombers and rocket attacks. "But regardless of who startd the violence, justice demands that humanitarian law standards be adhered to and respected." HRW remains neutral; "we don't make judgements on whether using armed force is justified. Our job is to document violations of human rights and humanitarian law, using the same methodology that we use globally, and to hold governments or groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah accountable for their activities."

One of the most depressing and insidious developments in Israel today is the deliberate, organized, and systematic efforts by the Israel government at the highest level, often supported by Jwish groups in Israel, in the US, and in other parts of the world, not only to reject criticism of Israel's conduct -- which we get from every country we work on! -- but to seek to undermine the international human rights enterprise which provide the moral and legal basis for the whole human rights network.

Criticizing Israel's government actions is not, he argues, the same as questioning Israel's right to exist -- and acting as though any critique of Israel and its actions is an attack on Israel's very existence makes the whole human rights conversation nigh-impossible. Personal vilification of people like Judge Richard Goldstone. Efforts to destroy the concept of universal jurisdiction -- the idea that governments can try the most heinous crimes and criminals regardless of where they were committed. (For instance: when Pinochet arrived in London, it was this concept of universal jurisdiction which allowed him to be arrested.) Given the role that Jews have historically played in developing the human rights movement, it is deeply troubling to see Jews now turning against the very concept of human rights.

"The time has come to wrest back control of the discourse on human rights in the Jewish community, back to those who truly believe in Jewish valus. 'My people, right or wrong,' is a very goyische concept," he argues, and the room chuckles. "We need to reclaim the language of human rights as being utterly compatible with Jewish values. When better to do that then on Chanukah, when we rededicate ourselves to freedom?"

We move now into moderated discussion between Chazan and Levine, moderated by Holtzman, who first asks Chazan how she feels about Levine's assertion that we need accountability as well as reconciliation. Chazan replies by telling a story about going to Jericho (which is, she notes, illegal for Jews to visit) with the International Women Commission, and tells us that reconciliation vs. accountability came up. "In Arabic, accountability means 'making an accounting of,' from the word 'an account.' And in Hebrew, accountability translates as 'responsibility.' What is accountability? Is it an accounting? Is it responsibility? For half a day, we got struck on the translation," she tells us. "But can one truly achieve reconciliation without acknwledging responsibility and making an accounting thereof? It's not possible at all."

"I cannot remember a period in my lifetime when there has been so much acrimony and mistrust between Arabs and Jews as there is today," Chazan says. "Accountability is a precondition to reconciliation, but this is going to take a generation or two after there is a political solution. Our job is to put in place a mechanism where we can achieve that goal." Each side must make an accounting and each side must take responsibility. "In a conflict of this sort, nobody is blameless, and there is nothing more destructive than playing the blame game."

Levine remembers that during his last trip to Israel earlier this year, he went from Israel to Ramallah. "You hear these incredibly articulate narratives of victimhood," he says, "each one so often justifying its own conduct by pointing at the other. We have to find a way beyond that. The Palestinians have to recognize that despite the occupation, you cannot use suicide bombings, you cannot fire rockets at Sderot! And Israel has to recognize that whatever the history and the Holocaust and everything that's happened, there's so much that can't be justified. It will be a painful process, a difficult process, but it's essential for a just and sustainable peace."

Holtzman notes that American failure to have accountability for torture and violations of human rights law during the Bush administration corrodes our whole society. "It begins to create a system in which some people can avoid accountability, and the rule of law doesn't apply to them! What does it mean to have a society in which some people are exempt because of their power, their wealth... from being held responsible for their actions?" The failure to hold people accountable here, she says, has a terrible impact elsewhere. Accountability, Holtzman suggests, may only be possible when people are willing to hear the stories. Torture isn't an abstract issue. "There's a human being at the other end of that."

Chazan tells us that her friends say they're depressed, there's no hope -- and that's defeatism. As president of the New Israel Fund, she says, she looks at the incredible good work done by the organizations they fund, and she has tremendous hope! But we need to think strategically. "Governments make policy; sometimes one has to urge, cajole, threaten, and even compel governments to do something against their will because the citizens want it," she says. It matters that we keep doing what we're doing. "I don't know of any open society without human rights defenders." We need to keep doing what we're doing -- but we should spend twenty percent of our time thinking systematically, because those who are destroying peace are outsmarting us, "and I hate to be outsmarted!"

If you want hope, she points out: who helped to extinguish the Carmel fire? The Palestinian Authority. Egypt. Jordan. Turkey. Kyrgyzstan. Greece. "If anyone had for one minute doubted that coexistence is possible -- look what the countries in the neighborhood can do when there is a natural disaster. So why can't we expect that the same countries, ours included, can do the same when it is a man-made disaster?"