Sharon Abraham-Weiss has been executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) since June 2014. The non-profit organization advocates for freedom of speech and expression, minority rights, the status of refugees and asylum seekers, access to basic services like water and electricity, and an end to discriminatory housing practices.
In addition to her work as the former equal employment opportunities commissioner at the Ministry of Economy, Abraham-Weiss was also a founder and a board member of Itach-Maaki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, and was named one of Israel’s 66 most prominent female leaders by Ha’aretz in 2014.
Abraham-Weiss spoke to The CJN in advance of her recent visits to Toronto and Vancouver at the invitation of the New Israel Fund Canada, to talk about the work ACRI does to promote human rights in Israel.
Tell me about your history with ACRI and your accomplishments before becoming its executive director in 2014.
I started with the organization as a legal intern. ACRI was established in 1972 by North American liberals who had ideas of civil liberties in the United States. The model was based on the American Civil Liberties Union, an NGO that deals with human rights. There were a couple things happening in Israel. The occupation was in 1967 and also there were clashes between Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Jews.
Its main work in the beginning was legal work, so we would take things to the Supreme Court regarding civil liberties and human rights. It is the largest human rights organization and the oldest, best-known and established doing this work in Israel.
I left ACRI in 2008. I went to teach at one of the law schools, about corporate social responsibility, and later I became the equal employment opportunities commissioner – a position I held for five years prior to my current position – working for the government, the Ministry of Economy.
What are some of Israel’s most pressing social issues?
We have a department that deals with social and political liberties, but today, the biggest challenge is the democratic character of Israel. We’ve seen legislation in the last couple of years that, from our perspective, is harming minorities. We would like to see a democratic Israel with pluralism and lots of views, and in the past couple of years, it seems the majority is not respecting minorities enough.
In terms of social rights, we do see a bigger gap among different layers of Israeli society. Economically, more people are in poverty. Israel started as a social state. It was established under a European model, and slowly, slowly, with privatization, it moved toward the North American model. I think fewer and fewer people are living in dignity. It is something that bothers us, and we are dealing with this as well.
Can you talk about how ACRI tackles the threat to free speech and expression in Israel?
When talking about the democratic character of Israel, freedom of speech is one example. There were a couple recent pieces of legislation and policies that seem to abuse minorities and aren’t good for the public sphere, and we saw the Ministry of Culture trying to interfere with the criteria of support for films for festivals, for books and other things, and whenever the views represent minorities, it seems to be restricted in many ways. This is something we definitely see in Israel.
There is also what is known as the anti-NGO bill, which is trying to limit the activities of non-governmental organizations, and I think that in a democratic country, you want to have a flourishing civil society and not limit civil society. There is a suggestion to “mark” some NGOs as foreign entities. The moment you call something a foreign entity, it has a smell of treason, or something bad. It’s like the McCarthy era in the United States, when people held views that were not respected by the majority, and they were marginalized.
What are your ambitions as the leader of ACRI?
I’ve worked my whole professional life to make a better Israel. And to me, a better Israel is democratic with equality for all its citizens. Obviously, the occupation is a violation of the human rights of millions of people.
When I look around, I think we can do better. I think in many ways, we talk about a start-up nation – there are wonderful things that are happening, but on the other hand, I think these things can’t cover up the things we are not doing well enough and that we should do better. I think the way we treat the Arab minority and the way we treat people who are living in poverty is not good enough. This is the job of a human rights organization – to give voice to the disenfranchised.
I’ll give you an example. In 1994, we represented Alice Miller, who wanted to be a pilot in the IDF. When we represented her, everyone was against it, saying how could we go against the IDF, and it’s terrible. We won that case. This year, Alice Miller was the torchbearer at a national ceremony on Independence Day. If you’re asking me about my role and what it is supposed to be, it is exactly that – advocating for women’s rights and equality.
We have to identify what is today on the margins and to bring it to the heart of the consensus, and today when we represent minorities, refugees, Arab-Israelis and other people who are suffering from violations of human rights, we want to bring it to the heart of the consensus, so that people will understand that they deserve rights, exactly as we did with women’s rights and equality.
In all your time with ACRI, have you seen much progress in Israeli society?
With women and minorities, we’ve seen some progress. I think the term “dignified existence” is a term that is common in the public sphere today. On the other hand, when I look at the rights of Palestinians, I think there is no progress there.
What is your goal for your visit to Canada?
I think a lot of people are interested in Israel as a democracy. When you say Israel, people think only about the conflict. We live here as people – we go to the grocery store, we have to pay our bills, we have minorities, we have constitutional law – so I’m trying to give an inside view about life in Israel and what it means.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.