My American Journey: First Stop – Washington D.C

I was honored to be selected to participate in the IVLP’s “Promoting Human Rights” exchange, along with four other representatives of human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from Israel. The goal of the program is to help “strengthen U.S. engagement with countries around the world and cultivate lasting relationships by connecting current and emerging foreign leaders with their American counterparts through short-term visits to the United States.” Our niche trip focuses on understanding the historical context of human rights in the US, the role of civil society in politics, and the organizational structure of various human rights organizations.

Our first stop was Washington, D.C. where we met with a variety of speakers from civil society and participated in discussions regarding federalism in the US. A primary concern at the majority of meetings was changes in the US administration and how they will affect human rights work.

Mr. Akram Elias, President of the Capital Communications Group and a prominent figure among Washington civil society, gave an overview on federalism to the group. His presentation was comprehensive, and provided us with a better understanding of how the American government functions.

We also heard from Professor Anita Sinha, Director of the International Human Law Clinic at American University. Professor Sinha discussed asylum seekers, focusing on those from Central America; the rights of inmates on death row; child inmates; and various lobby efforts regarding these issues. Professor Sinha highlighted the post-9/11 civil rights situation in US and the effects of the latest presidential orders on the country’s immigration system.

A number of meetings also concerned human rights in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. In these, I stressed the importance of the Administration engaging with Israeli NGOs from a variety of political perspectives, instead of the current reliance on those with a more left-wing agenda.

The meeting with Ms. Britanny Benowitz, chief counsel of the Center of Human Rights in the American Bar Association, was particularly interesting. The Center’s work – funded by the US Federal Government without any restrictions on use – involves protecting Human Rights Defenders (HRD), freedom of speech, and human rights. Their work focuses on activities in Latin America and the Middle East. During the discussion, I raised three major concerns related to NGO Monitor: the bias against Israel within the UN’s Committee Against Torture, cases of individuals described as HRDs promoting hate and/or violence, and best practices in researching human rights violations.

Most relevant to my work at NGO Monitor was the meeting with Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been the subject of NGO Monitor criticism for years. For the first time, I was able to sit face to face with members of HRW and raise challenging points. For example, I questioned them on their lack of campaigns against antisemitism, their research methodology, and their activities related to human rights in Syria.

We also met with Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for the LGBTQ community. It was particularly interesting to learn about how the organization uses its $50 million towards both policy and legal advocacy, and how it partners with a variety of coalitions. Regarding this, I questioned HRC about whether a member of the LGBTQ community can also be “right wing” or “Republican” and about the issue of “intersectionality.”

The discussion about the LGBTQ community continued in our meeting with Mr. Mark Bromley, council chair of the Council for Global Equality. Mr. Bromley reviewed the history of LGBTQ rights in the US, focusing on marriage as the case study. Very quickly, the discussion intensified upon the mention of the term “pink-washing,” relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I explained that this term is used to prevent any discussion on LGBTQ rights, and often sounds like a conspiracy theory. The phrase “intersectionality” also came up in the discussion, and while the idea is nice theoretically, in reality, it is used to connect different struggles – most often completely unrelated – to the Arab-Israeli conflict and prevents discussions on each unique case and how to solve it.

Although my fellow participants come from a variety of backgrounds, we were able to have nuanced discussions with all appearing to understand that protecting human rights in Israel is complex, and that in such a political atmosphere, there are always many sides to every claim.

We just arrived to Orlando, Florida after 10 days in Salt Lake City, Utah, after short visit in Des Moins Iowa.

To be continued…

About the Author
Itai Reuveni is director of the Israel desk at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.
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