I’ve written a lot recently (here, here, here, and here) about the controversy surrounding the New Israel Fund (NIF) and the accusations against it made by Im Tirtzu, a student Zionist organization, which claimed that 16 NIF-funded organizations were responsible for the majority of the documentation supporting the anti-Israel conclusions of the Goldstone report.
One of the 16 was “Rabbis for Human Rights” (RHR), a group founded and run by Rabbi Arik Ascherman (whom I met some years ago in another context. He seemed like a nice guy). RHR is probably one of the least offensive of the 16 groups cited by Im Tirtzu. Unlike the Israeli Arab groups Adalah and the Mossawa Center, it does not work toward the “de-Judaization” of the state, nor does it specialize in slandering the IDF throughout the world, like Breaking The Silence. I’m sure Ascherman doesn’t want to see Hamas attain its goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic state.
Here’s how NGO Monitor, a harsh critic of many Israeli NGOs, summarized its 2005 report on RHR:
RHR is an example of a human rights organization that, while critical of Israeli government policies and prone to political statements that are out of the human rights sphere, refrains from engaging in the language of demonization. RHR, however, also works in coordination with and lends support to many of the most active anti-Israel NGOs, and focuses most of its resources on Palestinian issues, while failing to address many of the complex issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to its website, RHR works to “promote the upholding of Palestinian rights in a variety of areas, in east Jerusalem, the west bank and Gaza,” which it does by legal action and “on the ground,” which sometimes includes civil disobedience. It works with Palestinian Arabs and ‘internationals’, volunteers from outside of Israel. It protects Arab farmers from “violent settlers” when they harvest olives, files lawsuits when it believes that the security barrier is encroaching on land worked by Palestinians, and tries to prevent the demolition of illegally-built Palestinian structures (alleging that Israeli policies preclude legal building).
Protecting anybody’s rights is laudable and there’s no doubt that there is a lot of unfairness in the relationship of the Israeli authorities toward Palestinians in particular cases.
But — yes, there had to be a ‘but’ — there are several problems.
One of them is that the philosophy of the group seems appropriate for a social change club on a university campus in the US, not a Middle Eastern nation at war. Rights exist in a societal context: the Mideast isn’t Berkeley, California, and Israel’s struggle to survive in a very hostile world isn’t a student demonstration. An occupied territory with a hostile population isn’t a minority neighborhood in an American city. Like the “messianic crazies” that they decry on their website, RHR too has a one-dimensional view of right and wrong.
Yehoyada Amir’s exposition of the ideology of the group sees the “post-national approach” as the pinnacle of political evolution, although he somehow wants to leave room for an attenuated tribalism called a “familial and national partnership.” Unfortunately he comes down way too far on the multicultural and “pan-human” side for today’s (or even tomorrow’s) Middle East. It’s a kind of unilateral disarmament in a hostile and well-armed neighborhood.
Another problem is the possible consequences of RHR’s actions. If a bunch of college students oppose, say, the gentrification of a poor neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin then they might or might not help anyone, but in any event there will be little damage. But an Israeli human-rights group taking the position that the IDF’s intentions in Gaza must be investigated may have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s ability to defend itself.
RHR sees the conflict as a struggle between “two peoples”, by which I presume they mean Jews and Palestinian Arabs. But there is a much wider context which can’t be ignored, in which the Jewish state is considered an abomination, illegitimately existing in the midst of land forever belonging to Muslims, by literally hundreds of millions of Arabs and other Muslims whose fondest desire is to see it disappear.
This rejectionist opposition is also extremely well-organized and well-financed, today primarily by Iran, which is moving to surround Israel by proxy armies. It also supports terrorist groups in the territories and even extremists among the Arab citizens of Israel. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Israel is in existential danger from these forces, even leaving aside the nuclear threat.
From RHR’s myopic point of view, the Jewish state is a behemoth oppressing powerless Palestinians; but in fact it is a very small and vulnerable island in a hostile sea. One of the strategies of Israel’s enemies is to remove the props of international support and reduce the world’s tolerance of its efforts at self-defense, in order to make it easier to physically destroy it. Thus the delegitimization campaign of which the Goldstone report is emblematic can have very real consequences for Israel’s future.
Palestinians in particular understand quite well the Western attitude toward human rights, and do their best to help make the news from the territories and Jerusalem fit the narrative of a noble people victimized by a soulless oppressor. RHR serves as a perfect megaphone for this.
Even if its complaints were not unbalanced or exaggerated, RHR applies Berkeley standards to a Middle Eastern nation which has essentially been at war since its founding. It amplifies and focuses attention on human-rights issues which — in context — are not issues. By doing so it provides real ammunition to Israel’s enemies.