For me, like for most Israelis, the two weeks between the end of Passover and Yom Haatzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are a time of year in which big concepts materialize in one’s daily life – our emergence as a people in the Exodus, the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, the remembrance, on Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), of the Fallen, through the celebration of the founding of the State of Israel.
Israel's Declaration of Independence includes two pillars upon which it stands – the creation of a Jewish national homeland under a democratic regime. Indeed, this special time of the year can elicit a narrow focus on the first pillar. Yet equally significant is the other pillar – Israel’s democratic foundations.
For a democracy to genuinely thrive, certain conditions must be met: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly – the basics of civil rights. If we don’t first acknowledge that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, the question of civil freedoms becomes moot.
As such, those who advocate for human rights anywhere must be seen as allies of democracy everywhere – and Israel, where a unique situation of 45 years of military control over a large civilian population creates daily human rights challenges, should not be an exception.
There are those in Israel – and even here in the United States – who aim to silence the voices of Israeli human rights advocates. Somehow, the notion is that less information is better, that not knowing what goes on in the West Bank and Gaza serves Israel’s best interest. But the opposite is the case.
Democracy can’t function absent of information – freedom of speech is meaningless when we don’t have the facts on which to base that speech.
Those who document and educate the Israeli public about human rights violations thus provide a patriotic service. As Israelis, we are right to also be concerned about violations carried out by the Palestinians, but surely our primary duty has to be determining the extent to which we ourselves are responsible for human rights violations.
The problem is that it’s invariably painful to hear negative information about the country we love. But when we are deaf even to well-founded criticism, we’re denying the democratic debate which is the foundation of both Israeli and American societies.
Indeed, the very terminology with which we discuss the conflict is still fiercely contested. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was challenged by his own Likud peers when he defined Israel’s presence in the West Bank as “occupation,” and “a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians.”
Denying the nature of occupation does not change the reality on the ground, in which 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under Israeli military control. Beyond that, the exploitation of land and water, the extensive military presence, the network of settler-only roads, and the separation barrier, built with little regard for Palestinian land ownership, mean that every day the settlements – which are themselves a violation of international law – bring new human rights violations.
Without the work of human rights organizations, many of these facts would disappear entirely from the public eye. This does not mean that the problem goes away, of course. Instead it continues to fester, with no public scrutiny. More often than not, human rights organizations reveal the human stories behind faceless numbers. When the Israeli government says that it has erected a security barrier hundreds of miles long, what does that actually mean for the people living on the other side of it? How do hundreds of roadblocks affect the lives of real people?
Israel’s security challenges are real. All Israelis, including myself, have painful experiences of war and terror. Yet sometimes our government's policies use our legitimate security concerns to further unrelated goals, such as the expansion of settlements. This is where information is crucial – to enable informed citizens to ask the right questions and make informed decisions about government policies.
Democracy isn’t meant to be easy. It requires active engagement to function properly, so that civil rights are protected and the political process may move forward in everyone’s interests.
But that engagement and those rights are on very shaky ground if we function in an atmosphere where information, and the protection of human rights, are of secondary concern. When we celebrate Israel we must not omit its democracy and those who strengthen the bedrock on which it stands.