What do we think of when we hear the phrase “human rights”? In this month of Holocaust remembrance, perhaps our thoughts turn to the fate of the European Jews whose human rights were revoked by legislation in the 1930s by the Nazi government, and whose very right to life was ultimately taken from them by the Final Solution. Perhaps we think of the plight of African-Americans in the same era, deprived of the vote, denied justice and education, and segregated from the mainstream of American society and economic life.

Perhaps we think of women, barred by social barriers from much of the working world, who approached equal treatment in political, economic and academic life in western countries only gradually as the second half of the 20th century unfolded, and who still lack equal rights in much of the world today. Perhaps we think of homosexuals, whose sexual practices were illegal in Canada until the 1960s and who were shunned and despised by many until quite recently, and who still face persecution today in much of the world.


Ultimately, the idea of human rights is compelling because we recognize that it is fair that the same rights should apply to all people. When Jews lost their rights in Germany, good people of all backgrounds understood that it was unfair, not because Jews are special, but because Jews are human. It is this notion of fairness that has animated the popular support for human rights struggles in the past and still does so today.

In contrast to our anger at depriving people of rights based on arbitrary criteria, we accept that people can be deprived of their rights if they behave in a way that harms the rights of others. When someone attacks another person with violence, we accept that they can be deprived of their freedom for many years or for life. This does not seem unfair because the person attacked is also entitled to protection of their rights. When a crime is committed, the state is not only entitled, but expected to intervene.
Today, much of the most virulent criticism of Israel comes from people who identify as supporters of human rights. Israel is accused of systematically depriving Palestinians of their rights. In a Facebook exchange I had recently, someone defined the “occupation” as a system for applying different rights to people based on differences in ethnic background.

“much of the most virulent criticism of Israel comes from people who identify as supporters of human rights”

Such a definition ignores the fact that differences of treatment arise from differences of circumstances. Critics of Israel point to the separation barrier as a massive human rights violation, even though it was built in response to a wave of violence that took the lives of over 1,000 Israelis. They accuse Israel of depriving the Palestinians of the right to self-determination, even though the occupation came about as a result of Israel defending its people.

The Israeli government in the territories has a responsibility to protect the right of Israelis to their lives, as well as a responsibility to protect the right of freedom of movement for Palestinians. Where those rights clash, the government must strike a balance. Striking a balance between clashing rights is one of the most important functions of any government. Where Israelis are behaving badly toward Palestinians, the government must enforce the law against them. Where Palestinians are plotting violence, the Israeli government in the territories must try to stop them. The IDF raids Palestinian villages after attacks. The intelligence services try to ferret out plots before they can be put into action.

When critics of Israel frame the occupation purely as a question of Israel violating Palestinian rights, Israelis naturally ask whether these critics have any concern for their rights. Ending the occupation requires a resolution of the conflict. Characterizing the problem as purely a question of Israeli violations of human rights maintains the current dialogue of the deaf.

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