Reclaiming the Language of Human Rights to Advance Peace in the Middle East

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

While speaking in Europe last week on political Islamism, the Iran agreement, and American national security interests in the Middle East, I continually emphasized the importance of reading multiple points of view to combat today’s editorialization of the news. 

To do this effectively, you must literally examine the “accepted” meaning of words used to describe Israel’s behavior in the Palestinian conflict. Far too often, benign sounding words like “human rights” have been transformed into rhetorical weapons to advance a political agenda – in academia, the media, or in Congress – whose goal is to undermine America’s relationship with Israel, and Israel’s very legitimacy as a nation-state.

When I am in meetings at US congressional offices or when I lecture, I assume everyone does not share the same understanding of “international law, occupation, war crimes, Zionism, two states and human rights,” and I take pains to clarify their meanings in context.

This was highlighted by two articles I read this week while in Europe: one by Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel and Palestine, and the other an academic analysis by Dr. Donna Robinson Divine, titled “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” published by Indiana University Press.

Shakir used the accepted politicized language of Middle East NGO’s – while Divine examined and challenged the current use of these words as they have come to be understood in the halls of academia, where the fashion is to bad-mouth Israel and give a nod to the BDS movement.

Two generations of American college students are now in positions of influence across the spectrum of American society, government and business, who were raised on a terminology of the Middle East that has become the default starting point for international discourse, but is in fact a cleverly transformed lexicon to undermine Israel’s right to exist, advancing a political agenda where various aggrieved peoples must join forces (intersectionality) to undermine the racist Western civilization and its Jewish outpost in the Middle East.

To argue or challenge the meaning of these words labels you as a racist, immoral or beyond the pale of worthy discourse. You don’t even have the right to free speech, as evidenced by speaker after speaker being disinvited or screamed down in the halls of universities. I know first hand.

Divine says that: “Much of the academic discourse on the Middle East conflict has distorted the truth by transforming even the very idea of what constitutes a “fact”… How the change took hold in academia is best understood by focusing on the vocabulary that purports to show why the establishment of a Jewish State was an international crime… Students learning only this language graduate with a vocabulary that identifies Israel not simply as a force hostile to Palestinian interests, but also as a major source of evil for the world.”

For the vast majority of people who are unaware that the vocabulary of human rights has been co-opted to demonize Israel, you fall right into the hands of organizations like Human Rights Watch.

Shakir claims that Human Rights Watch takes no position on BDS, an international movement whose goal is the delegitimization of Israel through an economic boycott.

Yet he sees no contradiction in using the benign sounding words of human rights advocacy to claim HRW’s mission is “to defend the right of people to boycott… [that] telling businesses to stop engaging in activities that abuse rights in the occupied territories, is neither a call for a consumer boycott nor a boycott of Israel itself.”

Leaves you scratching your head.

“Human rights” organizations operating in Israel and funded by European governments accuse Israel of some of the worst abuses in the world, while using moral equivalence to claim impartiality by equating the actions of terrorist groups – like Hamas that target civilians or the Palestinian Authority that financially supports convicted terrorists – with Israel, which takes pains to avoid civilian casualties.

Ten years ago, HRW founder Robert Bernstein took to task the transformation of his organization from an unbiased sword to one where “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.” Nothing has changed for the better since he wrote those words, except that both the United States and Israel now identify BDS and its defenders for what it is: antisemitism hiding in the clothes of anti-Zionism.

It is time to realize that language matters for those who care about the US-Israel relationship and its importance to American national security interests. Semantics is the coin of the realm in diplomacy, and words are the ammunition of the lawfare campaign to destroy Israel.

A number of years ago, I sat with a senator and her chief of staff (COS) describing the complexities and conflicting narratives of what the occupation of a disputed territory means according to a non-politicized definition of international law. The COS thanked me, and I asked why.

What I learned was that many pro-Israel organizations have adopted the words of their adversaries, undermining their case to present a contextually correct understanding of the complexities of the conflict. Terms such as occupation, 1967 border, war crimes, collateral damage, disproportionate force and settlements need more than a 280 character tweet.

Organizations that are trying to advance peace in the region need to think about reclaiming the language of human rights, and learn to explain how it is used today as a weapon against Israel. Otherwise, those peace advocates will be fighting a continually uphill battle in Congress, on college campuses and with the American public, against an adversary with a decided advantage that has won the tools of debate.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate and House, and their foreign policy advisers. A regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and i24TV international, he is a contributor to The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.

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