Killing the messenger: Prof. Aeyal Gross on the assault on Israeli human rights groups
Professor Aeyal Gross is a faculty member in the law faculty of Tel Aviv University, a guest lecturer at the University of London, and research fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. His blog and full bio are available at www.aeyalgross.com. This article was commissioned by the Israeli Democracy Institute in Hebrew on the for International Human Rights Day. An annotated version, also in Hebrew, is available on Prof. Gross’s blog.
Killing the messenger
International Human Rights Day commemorates an important historic moment that occurred 61 years ago. On December 10th 1948, after devastating years filled with violence and bloodshed, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This day symbolizes a revolution in thought that transformed the understanding of human rights from a state’s “private matter” to an international standard of rights that each and every human being deserves. The revolution in thought conveyed by the Universal Declaration was illustrated by the fact that, alongside the right to life, liberty, freedom of expression, of religion, of conscience and of movement; the right to health, education, housing, and just and fair employment benefits were listed with equal importance. The Universal Declaration did not distinguish between ”civil” ” and “social” rights, and instead addressed them all as human rights.
Sixty-one years after this historic moment, the revolution proposed by the Universal Declaration has received many threats. The Declaration’s attempt to secure equality and human rights for each and every person has been limited by national and ethnic criteria concerning those who deserve them, undermining the universality of these rights. For example, migrant workers and Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories are not eligible for the same rights that Israeli citizens enjoy. At the same time, among its citizens, the State of Israel discriminates against and violates the rights of many, as described by a recent report released by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) in honor of International Human Rights Day, which concludes that democratic rights in Israel are “conditional.” There is also a missing link between “civil” and “social” rights, in opposition to Israel’s Declaration of Independence which promises “total equality of social and political rights.” Welfare rights take second place, if they are recognized at all, in Israel. Amongst these disturbing phenomena, this year a particularly upsetting one demands our attention: the concept of “killing the messenger.” More and more, the discussion about violations of human rights is diverted to one meant to de-legitimize those who point them out.
One obvious example is the Goldstone Report. Even if the report may be criticized and is somehow imperfect, the orchestrated attack against it – before the ink had dried on the paper – and the attempt to delegitimize Goldstone the man, was an effort led by the President of Israel and others to prevent discussion concerning the devastation of Palestinian civilian lives in Gaza inflicted by Israeli forces. This orchestrated attack has resulted in a reframing of the discourse to focus on questions about the report, the committee and its chairperson rather than the actual issues. All of a sudden, information about the devastation of Palestinian civilian lives – brought to the public by soldiers who participated in combat before the report was published – became irrelevant, and the discussion instead focused on the report and its authors. For example, many who attempted to de-legitimize the report wrote that one of the committee members signed a letter during the war claiming that Israel’s actions in Gaza amount. Prima facie, to war crimes. Even if it were preferable that those on the committee should not have publicly expressed their opinions of the events previously, none of the critics took the pains to mention that the same letter also said that Hamas was (without the “prima facie” qualificaiction) committing war crimes by firing rockets upon Israeli citizens and carrying out suicide attacks. Of course, this would undercut the claim that this committee member was prejudiced against Israel from the get-go. When a senior Israeli journalist used this argument in an article meant to delegitimize the Goldstone Report, I wrote asking why he hadn’t mentioned that in the letter signed by the committee member it had also declared that Hamas was guilty of war crimes. I have yet to receive an answer.
Another example is the attack on Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose goal was, again, to deviate attention away from the violations of human rights presented in the organization’s reports. I suggest that everyone check HRW’s website once daily in order to understand that it deals with numerous countries, including the United States and Arab countries, and in fact discusses issues from around the globe. Israel does not hold a special place in the work of HRW, and its reports concerning Israel are produced in the same way as those focused on any other country. Recently I had a conversation with a friend who asked why the organization does not cover violations of human rights committed by Hamas. I sent him HRW’s report in which it concludes that Hamas’ rocket fire on Israel is a war crime. My friend then wondered why the organization does not discuss Hamas’ violations of the human rights of the Palestinian population in Gaza. One minute later, after conducting a simple Google search, I found and sent him a report relating to that issue specifically, which concluded that Hamas must stop killing and torturing Palestinians.
The fact that this friend “knew” that HRW does not discuss Hamas’ but rather only Israel’s violations of human rights, and that he did not consider that the organization released reports that were extremely critical of Hamas, only shows to what extent the attack on HRW and on human rights organizations in general has been successful. When I recently joined HRW’s advisory committee on Middle East and North Africa affairs, one of the same bodies whose goal it is to de-legitimize human rights organizations wrote that the members who joined, including the author of this article, prove that the organization has an anti-Israel bias. To “prove” this baseless claim, the group wrote that I claimed that Israel kills Palestinian children. Besides the fact that Israel does do this, the article from which they took this “evidence” was about how killing the children of “the other” is an unfortunate phenomenon of our region, and I spoke about the slaughter of children in Sderot and Gaza. Somehow, the group “forgot” to mention the fact that in the article I discussed the killing of Israeli children as well. Furthermore, the organization claimed that I supported a “divestment campaign” against Israel. The article used to support this claim was one that I wrote specifically about the Norwegian pension fund’s decision to stop investing in Elbit Systems, and explained that it sprang from the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the separation barrier, which said that no country could assist in building the wall Israel is building in the West Bank, an effort of which Elbit Systems is an integral part. I explained further that the Norwegian council on ethics, according to whose advice the decision was made, based its opinion on obligations to the rulings of the International Court.
In my naivety, I sent an email to the head of the group that hopes to de-legitimize human rights organizations and who wrote these falsities about me, and I asked why he had twisted my opinions. Once again, I have yet to receive a reply. However, I did not need a response to know the answer: my views were distorted as part of a campaign to de-legitimize human rights organizations and everyone who is active in these organizations and, in fact, anyone that works on the issue. Today, the organizations that “monitor” human rights organizations and academia and define criticism as anti-Israel, attempting to delegitimize it often through distortion, are amongst the greatest threats to the defense of human rights and democracy in general. The McCarthyism that characterizes these groups, and their attack on the Goldstone Committee, is meant to terrorize those who champion human rights and those who criticize their violation. Without criticism and activism regarding human rights, and when the discussion is diverted to the “messenger” and not the violations themselves, the human rights situation will only worsen. This is a real and present danger, and thus everyone who fears for democracy and human right must denounce the strategy of “killing the messenger.”