Human Rights and Wrongs

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In the world arena, why is it that "voices of victims" do not include Jews?

 

On a clear day in early May at San Francisco State University, Jewish students demonstrating for peace in the Middle East were attacked by a mob in the campus's central plaza. Describing the events the next day, Dr. Laurie Zoloth, the director of the Jewish Studies Program, wrote in a mass-circulation email, "As soon as the community supporters left, the 50 students who remained praying in a minyan for the traditional afternoon prayers, or chatting, or cleaning up after the rally were surrounded by a large, angry crowd of Palestinians and their supporters."

 

This group of counter-demonstrators was not expressing a counter-vision for peace in the Middle East. They were, according to Zoloth's account, since corroborated by other participants, "a hate mob."

 

As the Arabs and their supporters called out slogans like "Go back to Russia!" "Get out or we will kill you!" and "Hitler did not finish the job," the only people who came to stand by the Jewish Hillel students, (clad in yellow T-shirts embossed with an iron-on reading "Peace, Shalom, Sallam)," were Zoloth and regional Hillel Director Fred Astren.

 

The police refused to intervene, except in the end by escorting the Jewish students trapped in a corner of the plaza away from the mob. "Not one administrator came to stand with us," Zoloth wrote, angrily noting, "I knew if a crowd of Palestinian or black students had been there, surrounded by a crowd of white racists screaming racist threats, shielded by police, the faculty and staff would have no trouble deciding which side to stand on."

 

The university maintained its silence regarding the incident for more than a week. Once it began to act however, SFSU President Robert Corrigan claimed that he had asked California District Attorney Terence Hallinan's office to assign a member of its hate crime unit to work with SFSU in investigating the incident. Hallinan himself denied to the San Francisco Chronicle that any such request had been submitted. At the same time, a timeline of the rally posted by Corrigan on the SFSU Web site insisted that "individuals from both sides said offensive words," and blamed both for the incident.

 

The anti-Semitic riot in San Francisco was not an isolated incident. In April, Arabs in Beverlywood, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, assaulted three Jewish students, and a Jewish man was assaulted in Oakland in March. Synagogues in San Francisco and Berkeley have been attacked, as have Jews on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where one Jewish man was severely beaten. Meanwhile, Israel supporters on campuses from Harvard to Princeton to the University of Michigan to Berkeley have been heckled, jeered, and threatened by anti-Israel demonstrators who refer to Israel as a racist apartheid state and call for their universities to divest from Israel as they were called upon to do against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.

 

The scattered, although increasingly commonplace, physical attacks on Jews in the United States in 2002 pale by comparison to the hundreds of violent assaults on Jews and Jewish centers throughout Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, where attacks on Jews became so frequent and violent in the spring that the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory, warning Jews of the dangers of visiting both countries.

 

All of these attacks on Israel and Jews in the United States and Europe are also directly related –ccording to the perpetrators themselves — to the Palestinian terrorist war against Israel. By mid-May, the human toll in that war had risen to 460 dead and more than 3,500 wounded Israelis.

 

For many, one of the most disturbing aspects of the current onslaught against Jews and the Jewish state is that it is met with such indifference, if not support, by the most "enlightened" members of the international community — namely the intellectual elite, mainstream human rights organizations, and the United Nations. These groups, like the administrators at San Francisco State, often refuse to acknowledge Jewish victimization by the Arabs and their supporters or to stand by the beleaguered Jews.

 

 

Anne Bayefsky, visiting professor of international law at Columbia University, believes that the current climate, which enables such attacks on Jews and Israel received its operating license last August at the U.N. Conference on "Racism, Xenophobia and Other Forms of Hatred" in Durban, South Africa.

 

Bayefsky, a scholar of international and human rights law with 25 years of experience in the field, participated in the conference as a representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. At Durban, Bayefsky relates, the international community engaged in a systematic criminalization of the State of Israel and denial of anti-Semitism.

 

Signs of what was awaiting the Jews at Durban were evident from the start. Bayefsky relates that all representatives from Jewish and Israeli organizations were so designated on the nametags given them by conference organizers upon registration. While this may be standard operating procedure, because of the harsh anti-Semitic sentiment pervading the conference, such designation of Jewish and Israeli delegates worked to single them out for attack by other delegates and outside protesters for the duration of the conference.

 

Bayefsky explains that from registration on, Jewish delegates at Durban were systematically exposed to continuous harassment. "Like all Jewish participants, I felt concern for my safety. The Jewish Center in Durban was forced to close because of threats of violence." Adding to the Jewish delegates' fears was the fact that copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were sold on the conference grounds as were fliers, such as one depicting Hitler's image with the question, "What if I had won?" Among the answers: "There would be NO Israel and NO Palestinian bloodshed."

 

There were two U.N. conferences that were conducted simultaneously at Durban — the governmental conference and a conference of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), where, according to the U.N., the "voices of the victims" were to be given expression.

 

Israel and the United States walked out of the governmental conference because, as Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, "I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism,' or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world — Israel — for censure and abuse."

 

While the governmental conference was marked by vilification of Israel, it was at the NGO conference where general acceptance of hatred for Jews and Israel was most uninhibited. The conference's final resolution called Israel "a racist apartheid state," guilty of the "systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing … and state terror against the Palestinian people."

 

This resolution — effectively airing the "voices of the victims" in the Mideast conflict, according to proponents — was overwhelmingly adopted by the NGO conference, receiving the support of such mainstream human rights organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers for Human Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights.

 

And what of the Jewish victims? The Jewish caucus at the NGO conference put forward a resolution of its own stating that violence directed against Jews because of their support for the State of Israel, as well as Holocau
st denial, are forms of anti-Semitism. This clause was voted down overwhelmingly. "The only group that voted for it was the Jews," says Bayefsky. "Of all the 'voices of the victims' put into the resolution, only one voice was deleted — the Jewish voice."

 

The next day, when Bayefsky went to a meeting to represent her international NGO during a discussion of Palestianan issues, she was asked to leave the room by representatives of human rights organizations. "They explained to me that as a representative of a Jewish organization, I was biased and couldn't be counted on to act in the interest of general human rights."

 

For Bayefsky, Durban was an eye-opening experience. "These are people I had worked with for a very long time, but as soon as I identified myself with issues relating to the Jewish people, I immediately became devoid of human rights credentials."

 

This tendency to delegitimize and even criminalize Israel is especially striking, Bayefsky and others have noted, because the entire notion of human rights originated as a response to the Holocaust.

 

Dr. Alex Safian, deputy director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), has conducted in-depth analyses of the anti-Israel bias of mainstream human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Safian explains that part of the problem with these organizations' work on Israel stems from the fact that much of their field work is done by Palestinians with political motivations to criminalize Israel. On Oct. 3, 2000, Amnesty put out a press release charging Israel with using excessive force against the Palestinians, Safian noted. On Oct. 5, Amnesty announced it was sending a team to investigate and make recommendations to the government of Israel.

 

"There are two problems with this chain of events," said Safian. "First, Amnesty leveled its allegations against Israel before it had checked to see if they were true. Second, why, if it is going to investigate, is it already clear that it will only make recommendations to Israel and not the Palestinian Authority?

 

The fact is that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both rely heavily on work done by Palestinians working for Palestinian human rights organizations like Al-Haq (Law in the Service of Man) and LAW — The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment. Both organizations receive accolades from U.S. and European institutions and both were intimately involved with the anti-Semitic campaign at Durban.

 

Shawqi Issa, who drafted the resolutions accusing Israel of war crimes and genocide, spent a year as LAW's director at Harvard Law School as a Human Rights Fellow in 1999. He explained in an online chat on the Arab Web site Arabia.com in October 2001 that he sees human rights activism against Israel as one form of resistance to Israel. In his words, "Each Palestinian has a role to play in the resistance against the Israeli occupation. We see [that] our role as human rights lawyers is to write and report to the whole world what is going on. Such as crimes and violations of human rights … Other Palestinians participate [in resisting Israel] by other methods."

 

The tendency of these organizations to castigate Israel is so strong that often, according to Israeli Justice Ministry sources, they do not even conduct an investigation of allegations against Israel before they arrive at their conclusions. This was again the case with both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty — not to mention the U.N. — in their statements about the pitched battle between IDF forces and Palestinian gunmen in the Jenin refugee camp in April.

 

While the U.N.'s special coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza Strip Terje Larsen accused Israel of committing "atrocities" during the battle, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty intimated that "war crimes" had been committed although they offered no proof of this allegation and reached it after visiting the area for one day apiece.

 

The fact that at the end, even the United Nations Relief and Works Association (UNRWA) acknowledged that the Palestinian death toll stood at 56, 48 of whom had been gunmen, while Israel's death toll from the battle was 23, did not cause any of these organizations to retract their initial allegations against Israel. Indeed Amnesty, insisted that in carrying out Operation Defensive Shield, launched after Palestinians terrorists killed 130 Israelis during March, Israel was guilty of "gross violations of human rights and international law."

 

Finally, the organization explained that from its perspective, Israel had no right to self-defense because all of Israel's tactics — from assassinating terrorists, to arresting them to demolishing buildings used for launching and planning attacks against Israel—are deemed "human rights breaches."

 

For its part, Human Rights Watch concluded that an investigation should be conducted into "Israeli war crimes." Like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, insisted that the Israeli army was bound to abide by standards unheard of throughout the world.

 

While Palestinian fighters themselves told Arabic language press outlets that they had personally booby trapped most of the structures in the camp and had used civilians to lure Israeli soldiers into the mined structures — a tactic which caused 13 Israeli reservists to be killed in an ambush on April 9 — Human Rights Watch argued only that Israel deliberately targeted civilians and it recommended that individual Israel military commanders be indicted for war crimes.

 

In an earlier, well-reported case, Human Rights Watch ignored the findings of its investigators because those findings cleared Israel of all wrongdoing. 

 

In 1990, Human Rights Watch sent a team of investigators to look into the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, but disregarded the conclusion of two of three penology experts on the team that "while conditions were harsh, they were neither inhuman nor intolerable." Instead, the organization published a report that reached the opposite conclusion, based largely on work conducted by Palestinian field workers, according to the Washington Post.

 

Professor Robert Wistrich, director of Hebrew University's Center for Research on anti-Semitism, views Israel's treatment by the human rights community as "grotesque," a 20-year-old legacy of the fading Marxist left in search of ideological renewal.

 

Wistrich adds: "Given that … human rights has become the ultimate in politically correct discourse, it has become the most effective mode to stigmatize Israel."

 

 

As to whether the criminalization of Israel by human rights organizations is the result of anti-Semitism, Wistrich is cautious in judging whether anti-Semitism is the chicken or the egg in the relationship. In his view, "I am not sure how far one should take the linkage between human rights and anti-Semitism. I do see it as the convenient language of our time for anti-Semites because there is no credibility whatsoever to the claims against us, and the idea that people spontaneously drew these conclusions is ridiculous."

 

On the academic front, there are two main causes for the virulently anti-Israel climate at campuses throughout the United States, according to professor Martin Kramer, former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University and the editor of Middle East Quarterly.

 

"The first cause is generational," said Kramer, author of the recently published book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America. "Most professors teaching today became interested in the field during the 1960s when Third World revolutionaries were all the rage. While ma
instream liberals outside the universities moved on from this, the universities, as if stuck in a vat of formaldehyde, remained frozen in time."

 

The second reason for academe's long history of casting Israel as the villain is that Israel, per se, is not much studied — unlike the much larger Arab-Muslim world.

 

The result is a situation in which popular courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict are often taught by professors with no expertise on Israel and with anti-Israel biases, according to Kramer.

Kramer cites as an example the case of Joseph Massad, who teaches such a course at Columbia University. "Massad is a known and outspoken activist for the cause of the Palestinians," he said.

 

 

 

"This would be fine if he were teaching Arab politics, but he is not teaching Arab politics."

 

Kramer dates the acceptability of the situation to what he refers to as the "Said Revolution" after PLO supporter and comparative literature professor at Columbia, Edward Said, who contended in his seminal 1979 book Orientalism that Western chauvinism and colonialism are at the heart of problems in the Arab world.

 

Taking a cue from Said, Middle East scholars have published a wealth of academic books and articles that paint a wholly distorted picture of the Middle East, according to Kramer.

 

Because of the rigidity of thought at Middle East studies departments in the United States, (Kramer refers to this as a "popular front mentality") students can emerge from universities as Middle East studies majors and graduate students having never been exposed to any view other than the orthodoxy that claims that Israel is illegitimate and the Arab world poses no threat to the West. "

 

 

"No one will assign works by world-renowned scholars like Bernard Lewis or Elie Kedourie or Fuad Ajami, who consider radical Islam a strategic threat to the West, to their classes today."

 

What can be done to defend against this situation? Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, believes that there is only one way to defend against the onslaught, and in fact only one way for Jews to fight effectively for human rights generally.

 

 

"The only way to truly fight for human rights is by insisting on the dignity and justice of the Jewish people, because the Jews are the most negatively mythologized people on earth."

 

Wisse explains that Jews as a group and as individuals are a target for hatred and rejection because "Jews represent the embodiment of modernity in supreme adaptability, tolerance, pluralism, and mobility. In short, all the features that make up democratic culture are embodied in the Jew. Many people hate these things and therefore hate the Jew, who is an incorporation of all of them."

 

Jews have been remiss in standing up for the very Jewish ideal of human rights by not standing up for themselves as Jews, Wisse admonishes. "It was right for Jews as Jews to march with the blacks during the Civil Rights movement," she explains. "But these universalist Jews should have insisted that the blacks march with them when they came under attack. Otherwise their activism lacks credibility. It becomes simple running away from their identity as Jews. What could the blacks have taken away from this? Not that this was selflessness. The Jews who did not stand up for their own rights were abandoning their responsibilities and the principles they stood for."

 

Wisse insists that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are at their core anti-democratic. "The real problem for the world is the unassimilable Jew — except for democracies. To the extent that a society cannot accept Jews, that country is anti-democratic. Therefore, the problem of anti-Semitism is not a problem about the Jews, but an indication that there is something wrong, something regressive about the society that enables anti-Semitism."

 

Bayefsky, Kramer, and Wistrich all generally agree with Wisse regarding the proper Jewish response to the onslaught. Kramer believes American Jews must pay more attention to what is happening on college campuses and give Jewish students the knowledge they need to defend against attacks.

 

 

"For Israel's enemies, if the Jewish students can be made to doubt, the rest will fall into place. Nothing is more valued in these places than Jewish converts to their cause," Kramer warns.

"The problem," he adds, "is that the Jewish students are on the front lines of this battle and they don't know enough. The Jewish community must accept criticism for this educational failure because these students are unprepared. Education to combat anti-Israel propaganda is not transferred genetically or through osmosis."

 

Wistrich and Bayefsky believe that one of the weapons for Jewish defense against the anti-Semitic tendencies of human rights organizations is to simply not join or contribute to them.

 

Wistrich contends for his part, "I think that Jews should stop and ask themselves some searching questions about how compatible their support for human rights organizations is with their support for Israel. How do they square their support for Israel with these organizations that are Israel's most virulent vilifiers? I get the feeling that when American Jews think about Palestinian terrorism they have yet to connect suicide bombing with infringement on the human rights of Israeli civilians despite the fact that I can't think of a larger abuse of human rights than suicide bombers attacking civilians."

 

Bayefsky is even more adamant. "Jews must stop funding human rights organizations which fail to speak out against anti-Semitism. Jews must stop pretending that anti-Semitism is unrelated to the treatment of the State of Israel. Jews must stop worrying about their credibility in the human rights movement and start supporting Israel in its time of need. We must remember the [the passage from] Sayings of the Fathers, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me?'"

 

In the meantime, sadly, the resolution passed by the NGO conference at Durban is moving steadily toward implementation. On college campuses, the divestiture from Israel campaign is well under way. Graffiti equating the Star of David with the swastika is commonplace throughout Europe and on college campuses in the U.S. European Union member nations have instituted informal boycotts of Israeli products and quiet bans on weapons sales to the Jewish state as Jews throughout Europe are increasingly under violent attack.

 

Meanwhile, the Belgian courts have yet to close the case against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinians in Beirut conducted by Christian Lebanese militiamen in 1982.

 

Back at San Francisco State University, Laurie Zoloth concluded her post-riot missive, stating that after the Jews were safely escorted away from the rioting Arabs and their supporters by the police, "One young student told me, 'I have read about anti-Semitism in books, but this is the first time I have seen real anti-Semites, people who hate me without knowing me, just because I am a Jew.' She lives in the dorms. Her mother calls and urges her to transfer to a safer campus.

 

"Today is advising day," says Zoloth. "For me, the question is an open one. What do I advise the Jewish students to do?"

 

 

Originally published in Moment Magazine

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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