Brett Stark, Harvard Law School '12, interned with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). He writes about the virtues of organizations that promote the rights of all rather than the interests of any particular group...
Israel, the West Bank and Gaza remain at the center of one of the world's most intense and divisive international political conflicts. Amidst this maelstrom Israel attempts to live up to its values as a Jewish democracy, the first and only one of its kind in the history of the world. Israel's partner in this seemingly quixotic task is a glut of NGOs; Israel has one of the highest concentrations of NGOs anywhere in the world.
This summer, I performed comparative legal research at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel's oldest and largest human rights organization. Unlike virtually every other non-governmental organization (NGO) in Israel and the Palestinian territories, ACRI does not advocate on behalf of a particular party. Instead, ACRI is committed to Israeli democracy per se, and thus strives to uphold the democratic rights of all people under Israel's jurisdiction. ACRI's mandate makes it a sorely needed, and unfortunately rare, institution within Israeli civil society.
I experienced the need for a balanced approach to civil liberties during a trip to Hebron, in the West Bank. Hebron encapsulates many of the most intractable issues fueling the Arab-Israeli conflict, a place where religious Jews live behind Israeli-army guarded fences in an area otherwise entirely inhabited by Palestinians. As an American Jew, I was permitted into the Jewish area and soon found myself eating tea biscuits in the kitchen of an elderly British-Jewish man who spoke of the international community's fundamental misunderstanding of Israel. Only a few minutes later, on what was literally the "other side of the fence," I sat in the living room of a Palestinian man, drinking coffee and listening to him tell me about the time his son was hit by a Molotov cocktail.
On each side of the fence, murals painted on the walls told drastically different stories about the history of Hebron and the condition of those who live there. On the Jewish side, paintings of Talmudic-era Jews describe a Jewish return to Hebron and modern Arab attacks on Jews. On the Palestinian side, the graffiti on the buildings accuses Jews of stealing Palestinian land. In the middle, separating those on one side of the fence from those on the other, are the Israeli soldiers, mostly young men in their twenties.
In talking with both Jewish and Arab residents of Hebron, I became more convinced than ever of the importance of an organization that brings all three of these disparate factions of Israeli society - Palestinians, Jews, and soldiers - under one democratic umbrella. In fact, in 2010 alone, ACRI spoke out on behalf of all three: religious Jews, Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli army.
ACRI's defense of the right to counsel, essential to any democracy, is illustrative. In May of this year, ACRI appealed to Israel's Attorney-General in the case of Amir Makhoul, an Arab activist in Israel accused of meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. Makhoul, the director of an Arab charity, was detained for over ten days without being permitted to meet with his lawyer. ACRI's response was unequivocal, writing in its appeal to the Attorney-General that "A suspect's right to meet with a lawyer is a basic constitutional right, serving as a critical guarantee that his or her investigation is fair and that due process rights are protected."
Compare Makhoul's case with that of Chaim Pearlman, a Jewish activist. In July, Mr. Pearlman was arrested on suspicion of murdering four Palestinians. Like Makhoul, Mr. Pearlman was arrested and denied the right to meet with his lawyer. ACRI, again appealing to the Attorney-General, did not waver in its commitment to constitutional principles. Advocating on Pearlman's behalf, ACRI asserted, "The right of a suspect to meet with a lawyer is a basic constitutional right, one that guarantees a fair investigation and that [promotes] the safeguarding of the detainees' rights...Furthermore, preventing a meeting with a lawyer...creates a substantial risk for eliciting false confessions and as a result, distorted justice."
Finally, in June ACRI came to the defense of a film supporting the Israeli army, at a time when the army was perhaps at the nadir of its popularity. In the aftermath of the "Freedom Flotilla" incident, an American-Israeli commentator made a parody entitled "We Con the World," insinuating that the motivations of the members of the flotilla were dishonest and therefore that the Israeli army's actions were justified. YouTube quickly pulled the video on alleged copyright grounds, to which ACRI responded that the video was within the legal parameters of "fair use," and that "freedom of expression also applies to satire and parody, and these formats must be protected both online and offline."
It is the presence of fundamental differences that make a balanced position on basic civil rights issues a prerequisite to both a functioning Israeli democracy and a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Makhoul and Pearlman cases, as well as the YouTube controversy, reflect ACRI's much-needed insistence on democratic equality within a complex environment of extreme conflict and difficult political choices. ACRI's equality-centric approach is modeled directly from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has in turn called ACRI "our sister organization." Those truly interested in forging a viable, democratic Israel should recognize that democratic principles are fundamentally impartial. The same rights must protect both Arabs and Jews. It is the only option for the Middle East's strongest yet most beleaguered democracy.