Human Rights and Wrongs

February 24, 2001
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First published in The Jerusalem Post on 24th February 2001

Are human rights about to be turned into the new crusade against the Jews? I ask this question in all seriousness in the light of the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, to be held under United Nations auspices in Durban.

As it currently stands, the document accompanying the conference is worse than the notorious "Zionism is racism" declaration of 1975, which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as the "low point" in United Nations history. If it proceeds as planned, it will be a tragedy.

Jews are a tiny people, less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the population of the world. By rights, our voice on the subject of racism should be insignificant. Would that it were so. Sadly, for three reasons it is not.

The first reason is that anti-Semitism is the world's oldest hatred. It was born long before the birth of Christianity and has existed relentlessly ever since. It added new words to the vocabulary of human shame, among them ghetto, pogrom, and Holocaust. For longer than any other people, Jews were denied rights wherever they were. The result was an unparalleled succession of persecutions, forced conversions, blood libels, expulsions, inquisitions, and massacres.

There is no special status conferred by victimhood, but Jews know as deeply as anyone on earth what it means to exist in a world without rights.

The second reason belongs to ideas. The concept of rights entered the West in the 17th and 18th centuries. When Hobbes and Locke were writing their treatises, the book they had in front of them was the Hebrew Bible. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the immortal words of the American Declaration of Independence - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" - he was not drawing on the philosophy of ancient Greece. Neither Plato nor Aristotle would have understood them, convinced as they were that some people were born slaves.

Those truths were self-evident to only a mind steeped in the book of Genesis, with its revolutionary statement that all human beings are made in the image of God; in the Book of Exodus with its assertion that the true God is one who liberates slaves; and in the prophets of ancient Israel whose message of human dignity, justice, and peace still resonates today.

The language of human rights is universal, but it speaks with a Jewish accent.

The third reason is that it was not by accident that the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights was made in 1948. It was an attempt, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, to give expression to the idea of a crime against humanity. This was not obvious. It meant that an individual, obeying the orders of a properly constituted government (Hitler came to power on a democratic vote), pursuing national interest as his nation conceived it, might yet be guilty of a crime. This meant formulating a concept that transcended the normal laws of national self-determination.

The crime against humanity was the Holocaust. I weep that it took the death of one-third of my people before that concept became part of international law.

Sadly, then, the Jewish voice is not marginal in the battle against racism. It is a war in which Jews have been on the front line for more than 3,000 years. It is unthinkable that an international conference to further the fight should, in effect, exclude the voice of the people who staked their very existence on the right to be different - on the inherent and majestic dignity of difference.

Yet that is what the Durban document threatens in its present state. It accuses Israel of racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, and constituting a threat to international security. It demeans the Holocaust by refusing to recognise its singularity, speaking instead of "holocausts," lower-case and in the plural. It fails to recognise the Jewish people as a specific target of racism. It introduces the worst kind of politics into a document that should be above politics.

Transparently, it is an attack on Israel, and as the late Martin Luther King Jr reminded us: "When people criticise Zionism, they mean Jews."

If the document goes ahead in its present form it will injure the fight against racism. It will damage the moral authority of the United Nations. Worst of all, it will threaten the very principle it seeks to protect: the dignity of the human person as a principle transcending the vicissitudes of particular conflicts and their resolution. A program against racism must be scrupulously free of any possible accusation that it embodies the very failing it seeks to cure.

Heaven knows, the State of Israel is not perfect. But since it was brought into existence by a vote of the United Nations a little over a half-century ago, it has done more than most nations of its size and age to honour human rights. It has provided a home for refugees from 103 countries, speaking 82 different languages. Under constant military or terrorist threat it has sustained a free press, an independent judiciary, and an active, sometimes hyperactive, democracy. It has provided humanitarian relief in conflict- and disaster-zones throughout the world. Even today, after the seven-year peace process has ended in violence, the vast majority of Israelis want peace and are prepared to pay a high price for it.

Israel does not deserve the vilification heaped on it by the Durban document. The Jewish people does not deserve the attempt to make its sufferings, past and present, invisible. These things are neither just nor wise, nor likely to advance the cause of tolerance and peace. The United Nations is a noble institution, and the fight against racism is a supremely urgent cause. Durban is too important to fail. It can only succeed if it recognises all rights equally. It is not too late to amend the document and rescue one of the great opportunities of our time.