Gerard Filitti
Gerard Filitti
Human Rights Attorney

Beware the Incitement of False Humanitarianism

Screenshot: Human Rights Watch report
Screenshot: Human Rights Watch

In recent years, we have increasingly seen spectacular failures on the part of the people and institutions we have traditionally relied upon to protect the vulnerable and serve the needs of our society. This failure goes beyond bad policy choices, like the failure to enforce laws critical to our national security while obsessing over the prosecution of acts seemingly based upon nothing more than a person’s political affiliation. It goes beyond developing economic policies that pick and choose who benefits, and who is left holding the bill. It even goes beyond the transformation of our education system from one respecting freedom of thought to one that inculcates blind adherence to radical theories antithetical to the values of liberal democracy.

The people and institutions we entrusted to unite us have injected rancor and division, sowed distrust, and created an atmosphere in which violence—especially against minorities—has become as systemic as the discrimination they face. They have not just turned a blind eye to this violence—they have actually incited it.  On more than one occasion, across the country, our elected officials have stood among the mobs and incited them.

Incitement is action that provokes unlawful conduct. This includes speech directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action; in criminal law, “incitement to violence” refers to speech that creates an immediate harm to another person.

The only thing more dangerous than incitement by elected officials is the less obvious incitement that comes from the private sector. In a much more sophisticated and dangerous way, incitement has become normalized in our society by private actors and once-venerable institutions that cloak their true nature in the false language of benevolent humanitarianism.

Take, for instance, Human Rights Watch—an institution whose very name and origin-story suggests a public trust that is wholly unwarranted by its conduct. Plagued by reports of internal scandal and questionable funding, it just promulgated a lengthy report concluding that Israel is an apartheid state. This report, presented as objective and unbiased, was, unsurprisingly, authored by an individual with a well-known bias against Israel. The contents of this report have been thoroughly rebutted elsewhere, but what remains unaddressed are the consequences of this report’s language. Falsely declaring Israel an apartheid state is nothing less than incitement against the Jewish community

On college campuses across the United States, Jewish students contend not just with antisemitism, but with open aggression directed against them. Student groups, often with at least tacit approval from faculty and administrators, host “Israeli Apartheid Week” activities and conduct anti-normalization campaigns, the effect of which is to dehumanize Jewish students. During “Israeli Apartheid Week,” Jewish students have seen their campuses and safe spaces vandalized with antisemitic graffiti and swastikas.

To get to class or extracurricular activities, they must navigate a sea of open hatred, including people chanting “free Palestine from the river to the sea” – the battle cry of Hamas (a U.S. government-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization). At times, pushing and jostling escalate to more palpable physical violence. This is the consequence of the false language used by institutions like Human Rights Watch, describing Israel as an apartheid state. Opprobrium of Israel is manifested as violence directed against the entire Jewish community.

Against this backdrop, the Human Rights Watch report does not make an impartial or useful contribution to dialogue regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What it does is incite violence against the Jewish community. The effect—and intent—of this incitement is no different than race-baiting: it specifically targets a minority community, tacitly encourages violence against its members, and helps institutionalize oppression and discrimination.

In the past year, in the face of institutionalized oppression and discrimination, people have come together in rallies, protests, and demonstrations. The Black Lives Matter, End Jew Hatred, and Stop Asian Hate movements have filled the void of silent acquiescence with calls for justice and liberation. In so doing, they have changed the national consciousness and helped obtain positive change. But we cannot simply stop there and declare victory.

Our civil rights—our entitlement to equal protection under the law—are still under attack. We must be vigilant for—and resist—the subtler, but no less dangerous, incitement that comes from private actors pretending to act for the public good. That form of incitement enters the popular consciousness and normalizes discrimination with frightening rapidity and efficiency, poisoning our society with lies that sound like truth. Those lies form the basis of the oppression we must never stop fighting.

About the Author
Gerard Filitti is is a New York City-based human rights attorney. He serves as Senior Counsel at The Lawfare Project, a Jewish civil rights litigation fund and think tank. He previously worked as a litigator in private practice for over 15 years and has broad experience in commercial and complex litigation across a wide variety of practice areas, in both state and federal courts.
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