« The traditional framework of human rights organisations is unappealing »

Jessica Montell est présidente de l’association de défense des droits de l’homme israélienne B’tselem, et ce qu’elle dit dans son article « Making universalism resonate locally » n’est pas sans intérêt même dans un autre contexte que celui d’Israël:

As in many contexts, in Israel there is a correlation between views on human rights and religion, class and ethnicity, as well as political positioning. Among the Jewish majority, those who voice support for the human rights message in our surveys are disproportionately on the left of the political spectrum, better educated, with at least an average income, families who come from a European background (with the exception of first generation immigrants from the Former Soviet Union), and define themselves as secular or traditional rather than religious.

Of course there are complicated intersections between these various identities, and I cannot address here the historical, political and sociological factors that have influenced the different publics’ views on human rights. The relevant question here is: given these factors, can we widen the base of support for human rights in Israel?

Certainly the military occupation and armed conflict is a big obstacle. I do not think we will succeed in mobilizing a majority of Israelis to champion the human rights of Palestinians, seen as the « other » and even the « enemy. » But military conflict is not our only obstacle.

What we have learned so far in our efforts to reach beyond our usual audience is that Israelis don’t share our views, not only because of security concerns, and not (only) because some are racist, nationalist, chauvinist, or religious extremists. It is also that the traditional framework of human rights organizations is unappealing. We are seen to be overly legalistic, unresponsive to local concerns, dismissive of traditional values and anti-religion – and in all honesty, I cannot say that this critique is without merit.

To what extent can we remain true to the uncompromisingly universal message of human rights while responding to these concerns? The very name of my organization tries to bridge this gap; B’Tselem is taken from the Biblical book of Genesis, which describes the creation of humankind in the image of God, b’tselem elohim in Hebrew. This is the religious source for the statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are all created equal in dignity and rights. However, B’Tselem did not build on this beginning and develop a language rooted in Jewish religious sources to argue for respect for human rights, but instead relied exclusively on the language of international treaties.

Advocacy with the policymaking community is always going to be a central strategy for the human rights movement – both advocacy with local policymakers and international advocacy as well (which many in Israel view as traitorous). However, I believe the human rights community can make some strides toward expanding and diversifying our base of support. To do so requires us to leave our comfort zone.

It is not only a question of designing more attractive packaging of our message; if we are serious about reaching broader audiences, we need to engage in genuine dialogue with them, based on the understanding that we also are open to change. In the hostile context in which Israeli human rights organizations operate, the openness (even vulnerability) required for such dialogue cannot be treated lightly. But to my mind, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.

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