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What We Talk About When We Talk About Amnesty

“Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If they are in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of their town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b)

“כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו אמר רב פפא והני דבי ריש גלותא נתפסו על כולי עלמא  (שבת נ”ד ע”ב)

Most of us likely never heard the name Bella Ravdin. Ravdin, a Tel Aviv resident who fled the Nazis in 1933, used her reparations payments from Germany for the Nazi murder of her mother to help launch the Israeli branch of Amnesty International. Yet soon after founding the branch, after years of human rights work on behalf of countless causes, she began to feel a sense of betrayal. On September 24, 1968 (2nd day Rosh HaShanah) Bella Ravdin sent the angriest Rosh HaShanah card of her life:

“Our people in the head office seem not to have the slightest idea what is going on here in Israel,” she wrote to her American counterpart, Paul Lyons. She went on to describe how Israel, since the end of the previous year’s war, had faced Palestinian bombings at Jerusalem’s Bikkur Holim hospital, Tel Aviv’s central bus station, and more. “Yet the annual report,” she wrote, “speaks of so-called terrorists and Arab political prisoners.” She clarified to the organization that “Placing bombs in bus stations, cinemas, cafes, is not so-called terrorism but TERRORISM.”[1]

Ravdin, writes Prof. James Loeffler in his 2018 landmark book Rooted Cosmopolitans:  Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, felt the sting of betrayal by the London leadership, who she wrote “had clearly taken a pro-Arab attitude in the whole dispute,” focusing solely on allegations of abuse in Israeli prisons and neglecting the welfare of Jews in Arab countries.

Rooted Cosmopolitans details the origins and development of decades of international human rights law – how it originated out of the central Jewish norm of entrepreneurs and activist protagonists of the 20th century. International human rights law is embedded in Jewish tradition and religion. It was kindled by the persecution of Eastern European Jews during the 19th century. The contributors included a surprising number of Jewish lawyers. Jews were instrumental in the creation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Amnesty International – which was founded by a British Jewish youth activist, Peter Benenson, and evolved into the leading nonlegal activist human rights movement.

Yet, as Loeffler traces in his historical account, the decade after the 1967 Six-Day war witnessed two parallel dramas:

The rapid rise of human rights into global consciousness and the growing demonization of Israel in the new human rights culture. The many chapters in the story of Jews and human rights seem to be overshadowed by a lingering question, which Loeffler poignantly poses:

“In a world full of unabashed autocrats and genocidal regimes, what explains the human rights community’s unswerving focus on the State of Israel?”[2]

There can be little doubt that the unanticipated permanence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has tightly bound Jews into a Gordian knot of ethics and power – both for Israelis and Diaspora Jews. An ongoing military occupation, injected with a healthy dose of Jewish messianism and obsession with the proprietorship of land, is bound to result in inequities and abuses that rightly deserve the attention of the global human rights community. At the same time, even the most sympathetic observers note that Palestinian leadership deliberately blurred the lines between moral protest and cynical manipulation of human rights activism to further its own authoritarian goals and achieve the ultimate pariah-ization and demonization of the Jewish State.

All that is a precursor to this week’s report by Amnesty International labeling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as Apartheid.

I am proud that our Reform Movement Statement (please read this statement as an ancillary to my column here) does not simply dismiss the report out of hand as libelous or antisemitic, but condemns the report on the basis of its findings and what it fails to report.

Then, I received a text message out of the blue, from an old friend, a staff member at Amnesty International. Speaking on the condition of anonymity she shared with me a telling account that many of our suspicions are true (I cite it all here):

“There is a clear internal bias against Israel, that is not even masked. Israel is the only country that came up twice in an annual publication of human rights abuses around the world, including China, North Korea, and some of the worst places and cases imaginable! Your statement is taking the wrong approach. Yes, it is important to refute the report based on its arguments and not just sink into the cheap repudiation of bias, antisemitism, whataboutism, etc. However, the report is pretty accurate – save for the apartheid claim – and its details are verifiable. Furthermore, Amnesty will not pay attention to any of your critiques at all. All the statements and reactions of the Jewish world will not only fall on deaf ears but actually make the Amnesty staff smirk and joke about all the Jewish organizations who now appear to be Apartheid sympathizers.

For legacy human rights organizations like Amnesty, throwing Israel under the bus has become the quick ticket to proving one’s human rights street cred – especially among young people.  It is much easier and more convenient to say free Gaza/Palestine than criticize the murderous record of say, Syria, Iran, China, or any of the vilest and oppressive regimes on the planet.

“The sad thing is that much of what is in the report is factually accurate and does need addressing,” my friend bemoaned.

In the process, Amnesty successfully implanted the term “Apartheid” into an established and accepted place in the lexicon of the far left. This leaves those uninformed and undecided to be easily swayed, because who would want to be accused of being an apartheid-sympathizer?

Let’s be clear. It is not antisemitic to employ evidence-based criticism of Israel, including Israel’s conduct concerning its Palestinian/Arab citizens and those living in the Palestinian Authority, and areas currently under Israeli military rule. There is much activity and treatment that would not hold up in the court of Jewish values of כבוד האדם – basic human dignity. Israel should be held accountable for its actions, and we should protest when we see such action.

It is true that Israel and many mainstream Jewish organizations are quick to dismiss agencies or NGOs that criticize them with accusations of antisemitism, relieving them/us of having to deal directly with their content. Known as the “או”ם שמום” – Oom Shmum[3] effect, we generally dismiss such reports as antisemitic and holding little objectivity. “Amnesty ShmAmnesty.” 

However, there are differing opinions on whether holding Israel to a double standard is antisemitic. Natan Sharansky’s oft-used ‘3-D’ definition[4] applying a double standard to Israel crosses the line –Amnesty denies it. As much as we need to take to heart the findings of the report, we must examine what was not in the report – namely: Israel’s security concerns and past efforts of negotiations. Without acknowledgment of those key items, it will be impossible to move forward in ending the Occupation.   With all that the Occupation is, it is not racially motivated undercutting the fundamental context of the accusation of apartheid.  Whatever you may say about Israel’s relationship with the treatment of Palestinians – and we have a lot to say about it – it is not based on racial hierarchy, skin color, religious, or ethnic measures.   Positioning the conflict in racial terms is not only wrong but will likely achieve the opposite and push any resolution to the conflict further away.

We simply don’t have the luxury to sit back and say that “haters are gonna hate.”  It is important to expose the bias of Amnesty International because it is deceiving to the world and because it is not helpful in building confidence between both sides.   As the Talmud teaches we have an obligation to protest the sinful conduct of the people in our “town,” AND protest the sinful conduct of the whole world. If we fail to do so, the whole world will pay the price.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Adar Sameach!

[1] Loeffler, James Rooted Cosmopolitans:  Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, p.261

[2] Loeffler, James Rooted Cosmopolitans:  Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, p.262

[3] Ben Gurion’s famous Yiddishism used to dismiss and express contempt for the institutional-political importance of the United Nations and denotes a feeling among many members of the Israeli public that the UN’s policies towards Israel are biased and unfair.

[4] The “3D test” of antisemitism is a set of criteria that was formulated by Israeli politician and former Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky in order to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. The three Ds stand for:

  • Delegitimization of Israel
  • Demonization of Israel
  • Subjecting Israel to Double standards

Each of which, according to the test, indicates antisemitism. The test is intended to draw the line between legitimate criticism of the State of Israel, its actions and policies, and non-legitimate criticism which becomes antisemitic. The three Ds test is intended to rebut arguments that say that “any criticism toward the State of Israel is considered antisemitic, and therefore legitimate criticism is silenced and ignored”. This test was adopted by the U.S. Department of State in 2010 and replaced by the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism in 2017.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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