What does Jewish tradition have to say about morality and human rights in the complexities of modern asymmetric warfare, whether in Gaza or Afghanistan?  When does the discussion of human rights slide into the political and ideological debate over Israeli-Palestinian relations, peace efforts, and American politics? And how do serious criticisms of responses to mass terror degenerate into attacks that seek to delegitimize Israel, the US, and Western democracies? 

Unfortunately, a conference under the banner of “Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish call to action”, scheduled to be held in New York from December 5 to 7, is unlikely to include significant discussion on these important questions.  The event, sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights (North America), covers a wide spectrum of issues, from Guantanamo, “the crisis in East Jerusalem” and even  “spirituality and human rights”.  But with the speakers and topics reflecting a narrow ideological perspective, there is no basis for complex debates or introspection on the serious critiques of the human rights community.

Instead of considering the hard choices, and weighing the potential for exploitation of human rights rhetoric for immoral objectives, some of the main speakers are actively involved in this abuse. Michael Ratner, who heads the Center for Constitutional Rights, (funded by controversial billionaire George Soros), has been a leader in lawfare and BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions — campaigns.  These efforts are part of the 2001 Durban strategy that explicitly calls for diverting human rights, international law, and the poisonous apartheid analogy to promote “the complete international isolation of Israel”.  With the self-styled Jewish Voices for Peace, (a conference cosponsor), Ratner has pressed the BDS agenda on the TIAA-CREF pension fund.

Ratner’s role in demonization goes further. In a blog posting entitled, “From Hebron to Yad Vashem: Jewish Sorrow Justifying the Sorrow of Others,” he condemned Yad Vashem for “trying to make me accept, or at least justify, what was unacceptable: the apartheid state that is today’s Israel. In this narrative, the Holocaust is used to ask us to wash away the sins of the occupier.” And Ratner was also a leader of the violent Viva Palestina confrontation at the Gaza border in January 2010, in which an Egyptian police officer was killed. With this background, which is incongruous with the Jewish framework of the conference, Ratner is highly unlikely to provide an informed discussion on avoiding the abuse of human rights complexities for political warfare.

Furthermore, a number of conference speakers are affiliated with Human Rights Watch (HRW), erasing the controversies involving allegations of unethical and anti-human rights behavior. Robert Bernstein, who founded this organization as Helsinki Watch in 1976, recently denounced HRW’s leaders for overemphasizing allegations against democracies and neglecting abuses in closed societies. This would be an obvious choice for a serious debate.  Other charges against HRW include raising funds in Saudi Arabia in order to attack Israel, silencing of a former “senior military analyst” who charged HRW with exaggerating reports of Israeli allegations, and employing anti-Israel campaigners to head their Middle East division.

Neither Bernstein, who delivered a highly articulate critique of HRW and similar groups at the Goldstein Human Rights lecture at the University of Nebraska, nor other knowledgeable critics are on the program. As a result, participants are unlikely to consider whether HRW officials are part of the Jewish moral tradition, or are themselves acting immorally. Instead, conference organizers are attempting to rehabilitate the discredited NGO.

The other speakers in this program reflect the same narrow ideological focus, including officials from B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund, and the Open Society Institute (the foundation established and funded by George Soros). Their affiliations and records reinforce the dominant political agenda. And as in the case of HRW, the evidence of bias, false allegations, double standards and other forms of anti-human rights behavior by these organizations are unlikely to be raised. 

Thus, serious debate on questions related to the morality of the human rights movement is missing in the conference program and speakers’ list. Rather, the event will ignore the abuse of human rights rhetoric by the self-declared representatives of these universal values.

All of this is far from the Jewish perspective on human rights, as well as from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust.  Instead of reinforcing these principles, their exploitation among the organizations that use the language of morality, but without the substance, points to the real crisis.