Commentary Magazine


Topic: Association for Civil Rights in Israel

Cheapening Civil Rights

It’s disturbing when a self-proclaimed civil-rights organization seems to have no idea what civil rights actually means. Yet judging by the annual report it published this week, that is the case with Israel’s premier organization, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Take, for instance, its criticism of the proposed “Nakba Law.” The original bill (a private initiative, not government-sponsored) would indeed have seriously curtailed freedom of speech: it barred any commemoration of the Nakba — the Arabic term for Israel’s establishment, which literally means “catastrophe.” But public outrage forced its revision even before the Knesset began discussing it. Thus the proposal actually being considered would merely deny public funding to organizations that commemorate the Nakba.

Yet according to ACRI, even this “not only violates the rights of the Arab minority, but crosses a red line in suppressing freedom of expression for us all.”

That reflects a serious misunderstanding of freedom of expression, which merely allows people to express their views without fear of state-sponsored criminal or civil penalties. It does not require the state to finance these views. And it especially doesn’t require the state to finance views it deems detrimental to society’s welfare.

Indeed, ACRI undoubtedly would oppose state funding for some views — for instance, that Israel should expel all its Arabs. Yet if a group’s “right … to express its pain at what it considers to be a catastrophe” necessitates state funding for Nakba commemorations, on what grounds could the state refuse to finance expressions of right-wing extremists’ pain at what they consider a catastrophe — the existence of Israel’s Arab minority?

Nothing could be more inimical to Israel’s welfare than having 20 percent of its citizens teaching their children that the state’s very existence is a catastrophe that must be mourned. And no government should finance such views.

Or take ACRI’s critique of a Foreign Ministry decision to bar anyone who didn’t do either military or civilian national service from its diplomatic training course: “Conditioning basic rights – such as … the right to employment – upon military or national service contravenes the basic tenets of democracy.”

Well, not if it’s a relevant requirement for the job. And because Israel’s diplomats are supposed to represent it overseas, some minimal level of identification with the state certainly should be a requirement. Yet most Arabs shun national service precisely because their community views it as a form of identification with the state — even though they’re allowed to devote their service exclusively to helping their own community.

Conditioning diplomatic jobs on military service would be unfair because the army would probably reject many Arabs even if they applied. But civilian national service is open to everyone. And anyone so reluctant to be perceived as supporting the state that he won’t even volunteer in his own community has no business in Israel’s diplomatic corps.

ACRI’s report lists dozens of similar faux violations — alongside some real ones. The tragedy is that its inability to distinguish genuine civil rights from fake ones cheapens the value of those that truly matter.

It’s disturbing when a self-proclaimed civil-rights organization seems to have no idea what civil rights actually means. Yet judging by the annual report it published this week, that is the case with Israel’s premier organization, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Take, for instance, its criticism of the proposed “Nakba Law.” The original bill (a private initiative, not government-sponsored) would indeed have seriously curtailed freedom of speech: it barred any commemoration of the Nakba — the Arabic term for Israel’s establishment, which literally means “catastrophe.” But public outrage forced its revision even before the Knesset began discussing it. Thus the proposal actually being considered would merely deny public funding to organizations that commemorate the Nakba.

Yet according to ACRI, even this “not only violates the rights of the Arab minority, but crosses a red line in suppressing freedom of expression for us all.”

That reflects a serious misunderstanding of freedom of expression, which merely allows people to express their views without fear of state-sponsored criminal or civil penalties. It does not require the state to finance these views. And it especially doesn’t require the state to finance views it deems detrimental to society’s welfare.

Indeed, ACRI undoubtedly would oppose state funding for some views — for instance, that Israel should expel all its Arabs. Yet if a group’s “right … to express its pain at what it considers to be a catastrophe” necessitates state funding for Nakba commemorations, on what grounds could the state refuse to finance expressions of right-wing extremists’ pain at what they consider a catastrophe — the existence of Israel’s Arab minority?

Nothing could be more inimical to Israel’s welfare than having 20 percent of its citizens teaching their children that the state’s very existence is a catastrophe that must be mourned. And no government should finance such views.

Or take ACRI’s critique of a Foreign Ministry decision to bar anyone who didn’t do either military or civilian national service from its diplomatic training course: “Conditioning basic rights – such as … the right to employment – upon military or national service contravenes the basic tenets of democracy.”

Well, not if it’s a relevant requirement for the job. And because Israel’s diplomats are supposed to represent it overseas, some minimal level of identification with the state certainly should be a requirement. Yet most Arabs shun national service precisely because their community views it as a form of identification with the state — even though they’re allowed to devote their service exclusively to helping their own community.

Conditioning diplomatic jobs on military service would be unfair because the army would probably reject many Arabs even if they applied. But civilian national service is open to everyone. And anyone so reluctant to be perceived as supporting the state that he won’t even volunteer in his own community has no business in Israel’s diplomatic corps.

ACRI’s report lists dozens of similar faux violations — alongside some real ones. The tragedy is that its inability to distinguish genuine civil rights from fake ones cheapens the value of those that truly matter.

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