NGO Monitor, Gerald Steinberg’s group, which tracks human-rights groups for anti-Israel bias, sent me its annual report. I don’t claim the resources to monitor every detail of its monitoring. But a section in the report on B’Tselem helps illuminate an underlying bias in the work of the bias-hunter.
The report quotes B’Tselem Executive Director Jessica Montell as acknowledging
that Israel is held to a higher standard within the international community and “in some ways Israel is discriminated against and disproportionately criticized.” But she also stated, “Israel is a democracy that holds itself to a higher standard. And I think that’s appropriate,” a comment which denies the universality of human rights. [my emphasis]
Does holding Israel to a higher standard in fact defy the universality of human rights? Sometimes, depending on context. Some groups, especially foreign ones, notice only Israeli offenses, because they begin by being offended that Israel exists.
But there are three essential flaws in the NGO Monitor argument against B’Tselem on this point. First, an Israeli group demanding that Israel live up to its own standards is demonstrating dedication to this country and its ideals. In the same way, for instance, civil rights groups who fought Jim Crow in the U.S. demonstrated the highest patriotism. There were defenders of the old order in the U.S. who could never accept this; for them anyone who assailed the sanctity of segregation was anti-American. Andrew Sullivan recently cited this comment by the late, unlamented Jesse Helms regarding Martin Luther King:
King’s view of American society was thus not fundamentally different from that of the CPUSA or of other Marxists. While he is generally remembered today as the pioneer for civil rights for blacks and as the architect of non-violent techniques of dissent and political agitation, his hostility to and hatred for America should be made clear.
I am not going to spend a lot of time here explaining that by fighting for the proposition that “all men are created equal,” King was in fact pro-American. Given that the Israeli Declaration of Independence promises that Israel will
ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…
it follows that Israelis who aspire to reach that standard are displaying patriotism. Such a group may in fact devote less attention to Palestinian offenses against human rights, because the group’s primary concern is improvement of its own country. And yes, such a group’s statements may be manipulated and misused by vicious foreign critics. If you are not willing to take that chance, you have to close down democracy.
Likewise, on the international stage, a country that seeks favorable international treatment as a democracy does indeed have to reach a higher standard. A few months after 9/11, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post (unfortunately, now behind the paid-archives wall) on Israelis who had been arrested and held in solitary for no crime but being foreign in the wave of paranoia that swept America. Part of my argument was that
When America compromises on civil rights… it’s not just a domestic issue. The United States presents itself in the world arena as defending those rights. The State Department issues reports of other countries’ actions in that realm… Once the United States shows it is willing to sacrifice human rights to fight terror, it loses its ability to criticize others.
Israel asks for U.S. support on the grounds of being the Mideast’s only democracy. For years, it has been negotiating for a relationship with the EU in which it would gain all benefits of membership except for a vote in EU bodies – again, on the basis of being a Western democracy. We’ve asked to be judged by a higher standard.
Third, and most basic, NGO Watch Monitor ignores the mastadon standing in its office: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is built on a lasting, structural violation of human rights. Not the original act of occupying the territory in a defensive war, I stress. But the occupation regime, including the settlement enterprise. Civilian settlement itself is banned under the Fourth Geneva Accord – regardless of the West Bank’s unresolved sovereignty. Under the two-tier legal system, settlers enjoy the full political and legal rights and status of Israelis, while Palestinians do not. Israeli security measures are far more onerous than they need to be to defend the State of Israel – because in large part, they are designed to defend the settlers living illegally in the West Bank. The rule of law is constantly, consistently undermined in order to maintain and expand the settlement enterprise. (If you read Hebrew, it’s worth looking at Shaul Arieli’s analysis of the destruction of the rule of law in the Bilin affair.)
It is impossible to defend human-rights discourse, as NGO Monitor claims to do, without acknowledging this. It is the epitome of the defense of Israel to seek to eliminate this stain.