Israel resides in a rough neighbourhood where human rights, equality and democracy are pretty much absent from the political agenda.
Not so in Israel though, where a host of NGOs keep the government’s feet to the fire, making sure it complies with the norms of a modern, democratic and pluralistic state.
One of the most notable among them is the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an Israeli organization that has been advocating for human rights for more than 40 years. Over the years, the organization has addressed issues ranging from due process under the law, equal benefits and treatment for minorities, including Israel’s Arab minority, gender equality, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and gay and lesbian rights.
It has also come under fire for its strident critiques of Israeli policy – so vocal that some say it is lending ammunition to Israel’s enemies. According to NGO Monitor, ACRI has asserted that Israel illegally annexed Jerusalem after the 1967 war; it has referred to Route 443 as an apartheid road; it has used the word apartheid in reference to Israeli policy in Hebron, and it has called the security wall a violation of international law.
But the topic on the agenda of Hagai El-Ad, ACRI’s executive director, during a visit to three Canadian cities will be the ongoing dynamic of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state. He will speak in Toronto on Sept. 20 at the Toronto Reference Library and then address audiences in Montreal and Vancouver, under the auspices of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIF).
NIF executive director Orit Sarfaty said that the “NIF funds [ACRI] programs that deal with domestic social issues.” The “flagship program” is a legal hotline that provides advices to people who might otherwise not have access to legal support.
“It’s fighting on behalf of marginalized communities in Israel,” she said.
A second ACRI program funded by NIF is one that subsidizes lawyers working in the area of civil and human rights. These lawyers spend a year studying at the Washington College of Law – supported by the NIF’s American branch – and then one year as a sort of apprentice in Israel. The Israeli leg of the program is funded by NIF of Canada.
“It’s creating a community civil rights lawyers in Israel,” Sarfaty said. “This initiative has changed the face of the legal community.”
ACRI’s scope goes far beyond those programs. Recently, it has been concerned about a proposal that the Knesset consider legislation called “Israel as the Nation state of the Jewish People,” El-Ad said.
While the proposed legislation’s contents are in flux, ACRI is concerned that as a “basic law,” it will shape future laws and require courts to make decisions that put Israel’s Jewish character ahead of its democratic one, he said.
The tension between the country’s democratic nature and its Jewish heritage “has always been a current theme in the context of the fight for equality in Israel,” El-Ad said. “Every decade, every year brings new aspects and challenges to this question.”
Today, there’s a balance between the two tendencies, but attempts to change that would mean “the Jewish nature would take precedence over the democratic nature. We’re dead set against that.”
The debate, El-Ad continued, has been going on since the creation of Israel in 1948. “It’s part of a lively conversation about the nature of Israel and democracy. It’s a constructive tension. Sometimes it’s less constructive.”
“It’s like breathing the air in Israel.”
ACRI has been in the forefront of advocating for Israel’s Arab minority, El-Ad continued. That community faces discrimination in the provision of services, housing, infrastructure, welfare services and other government benefits.
“We live in a reality where discrimination and the fight for equality is always present,” he said.
Equal rights for all Israeli citizens are guaranteed in the country’s founding documents, he noted.
El-Ad provided a detailed rebuttal to the to the NGO Monitor charges,.
Like it or not, he said, “according to international law, unilateral annexation is illegal. Not one government, including the Canadian and U.S. governments, recognizes the annexation of east Jerusalem, which is why both [countries’] embassies remain in Tel Aviv. The fact that this simple judgment by Israel’s strongest allies is ignored by many in the Jewish community does not make it less true.”
As to the security barrier, “any state has both the duty and the right to defend its citizens,” El Ad acknowledged. “But the barrier, along many kilometres, was designed and eventually built within the West Bank. ACRI and others have petitioned the High Court in quite a few cases, fighting on behalf of Palestinian villagers who would have found themselves and/or their lands beyond the security barrier …if it were to be built as planned. Notwithstanding the fact that building the fence on Palestinian territories is indeed a violation of international law, Israel’s High Court failed to recognize this.
“Still, in a number of cases, including ones litigated by ACRI, it was possible to convince the justices that the security claims presented by the State in order to justify the route of the barrier east of the Green Line, on Palestinian land, were false. In these cases, the court ordered a re-routing of the barrier, further to the west, closer [to] or on the Green Line [the 1949 armistice line].
“Still, as a result of building the barrier mostly within the occupied Palestinian Territories, 85 per cent is built within the West Bank itself, not along the Green Line. Approximately 10 per cent of West Bank land has been de-facto annexed to Israel.”
El-Ad defended ACRI’s use of the term “apartheid.”
“This term is far less controversial in Israel, where leaders including former prime minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres have used it to warn of the eventual outcome of occupation… Indeed, Justice [Dorit] Beinisch expressed her dissatisfaction with regard to the fact that in ACRI's petition against the segregated Highway 443, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (article 3) and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid were mentioned. Still, in that case, our petition was accepted [and] little has changed with regard to Palestinian access to the road.”
“One of the main challenges in [advocating for human rights]
is that a growing number of people in Israel identify human rights with the other – the enemy. Hence, people become less fond of human rights. We hope to undo that process.”
El-Ad said human rights apply to everyone: “This is about protecting all people, including people we dislike.”