By Michael Sfard, Oct 24, 2016 8:18 PM
Long ago, when I was a high school student in Jerusalem, I had a civics teacher who explained something quite astonishing to my class. The state is a means, he said, and human beings are always the end. The social organization is intended to serve people and only people and, therefore, there is no such thing as “the good of the state” distinct from the well-being of its subjects.
That was a million years ago, when the education minister was the leader of the National Religious Party and an extreme leftist in today’s terms, Zevulon Hammer, and it was still possible to articulate ideas out loud without putting the teacher through the Via Dolorosa that civics teacher Adam Verete traversed nearly three years ago for voicing leftist views in a classroom.
And that was also before the nation that gave Western culture many of its cardinal values prohibited them in its own state, and before Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook’s disciples obtained a monopoly on “Jewish consciousness.”
Because of that teacher and because of my parents, who agreed with him, I ended up damaged – an innocent child corrupted by the belief that loyalty to the state isn’t loyalty to a metaphysical, organic entity with an existence and value of its own, but rather, loyalty to the human rights of everyone under its rule.
And to the belief that a state has no right to exist if it does not aspire and strive to create the conditions to further the happiness and personal development of all its subjects, and does not do everything it can to avoid causing suffering to human beings.
Political loyalty to a political entity is solely and entirely loyalty to the values for the sake of which that state was created, and not loyalty to its existence only for its existence’s sake.
The debate about the legitimacy of B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad’s recent appearance at the UN Security Council, in which he called for its members to take measures that will advance the end of the occupation, more than anything else was born of the political hysteria of Israel’s government – which is feeling the flames of international revulsion toward its settlement policy coming close to its nether parts.
However, if we give the benefit of the doubt to some of El-Ad’s critics and suppose that at the heart of their criticism is a divergence in values and disagreement in principle with the idea that an Israeli is entitled to criticize his country and to call for taking measures against it in an international forum, then this position is based on a total lack of understanding of the concept of the social contract.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will add that this May, I too spoke at the Security Council, on behalf of the nongovernmental organization Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, of which I am the legal adviser.
I, too, called upon the members of the Security Council to take steps that would push Israel to stop violating international law and end its settlement policy.
For 50 years now, the State of Israel has been oppressing millions of people with a heavy hand. Hundreds of thousands of people have been born and lived their entire lives without rights that would enable them to influence their fate and future. And hundreds of thousands have ended their lives without ever having tasted political freedom.
As El-Ad said in his speech at the Security Council, “With every breath they take, Palestinians breathe in occupation.” To that, I would like to add: With every breath, the concentration of oxygen decreases, stolen by the settlements and the settlers, and the Palestinians’ asphyxiation increases.
However, the fact that we have before us an enormous violation of human rights is not enough to indict the state. Sometimes, such violations are an exigency dictated by the reality, a necessary evil.
In the most justified of defensive wars, innocent people are liable to suffer. The harsh result from the human rights perspective alone is not a sufficient smoking gun indicative of guilt on the part of the state. A key question is the extent to which the hurtful policy was forced or freely chosen by the government.
It is difficult to come up with an example more incriminating than the policy of Israel’s governments, and at its peak Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government, regarding the occupation and settlements.
Fifty years of colonization that robs the occupied civilians of their private and collective property, of the legal anchoring of segregation and discrimination between people in accordance with their national origin, of consistent and resounding refusal of peace, of entrenching the occupation for generations – and all this from a position of strength and by choice, and in breach of international law.
What is a human rights activist who knows all this about the occupation supposed to do? The right’s answer sends her to the people, to convince the Israeli public to end it. And as long as she doesn’t manage to do this, she can sit quietly and accept the majority’s decision.
However, this answer expresses the view of democracy as a technical matter and ignores the majority’s obligation to advance the values for which the state exists. A state that steals – a robber state that imposes an apartheid regime on a national minority with no rights – cannot claim legitimacy derived from the majority’s choice, nor can it expect that human rights activists will accept its ruling.
Moreover, directing the activist to the Israeli public ignores the fact that the occupation is not an internal Israeli matter. And even if it were, human rights are always a matter for the entire international community. Human rights activists from all over the world, and also from Israel, are supposed to be dedicated to the advancement and protection of human rights, thereby manifesting their loyalty to the political frameworks of which they are members. And everywhere the state acts intentionally to inflict severe damage upon the rights of those under its rule, addressing the world by means of the available legal channels is not only legitimate but also an obligation.
Last week, human rights lawyers from the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights – a well-known human rights organization – submitted an expert opinion to a court in France in support of summoning the former legal adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense, William J. Haynes, for questioning in connection with his part in approving the use of torture techniques in Guantanamo Bay. The creation in the U.S. legal system of immunity for the torture criminals obligated human rights activists there to go outside their country.
Therefore, do not expect Israeli human rights activists to celebrate the jubilee year of the occupation together with you, in silence and with bowed heads. The occupation is not legitimate; the policy of the Israeli government is not legal and is not moral. It is impelled by ideological greed that ignores the tremendous suffering it inflicts upon millions of human begins who are asphyxiating under its weight everyday of their lives. No majority is entitled to impose a sentence of oppression like this on a minority, and especially on a minority that does not participate at all in the taking of decisions about its future. And no human rights activist is entitled to relinquish any nonviolent tool, national or international, for fighting such a long and cruel occupation.
Until it shatters into smithereens.
The writer is a lawyer who represents human rights organizations and activists.
Photograph of Israelis on a hill overlooking Gaza in 2014 (AFP). http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article9644469.ece/binary/original/35-israeli-afp.jpg