Blind Spots Highlight UPenn Human Rights Event

March 23, 2018

The event held at Penn Law titled “Human Rights in Israel/ Palestine” was part of a week-long series of the school’s social justice action week. The two keynote speakers were Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch and Nadia Ben Youssef of Adallah. Given the title, one would expect the event to cover all human rights violations, on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. Unfortunately, the whole talk remained highly biased and only remained focused on alleged human rights violations of the Israeli government and Israeli Defense Forces. It undoubtedly evoked strong emotions as it touched on the sensitive issue of human rights violations. However, we must not allow this myopic form of presentation to dictate our understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like most of the events held by Palestinian solidarity movements, it was a clear attempt to silence productive discourse by manipulatively portraying Israel as the sole violator of human rights. Unsurprisingly, the event did not accurately portray the complexity of the Palestinian human rights situation in the disputed territories and throughout Israel. Instead, it demonstrated the anti-Israel movement’s objective to delegitimize Israel on academic campuses by appealing to students’ desire for justice and universal human rights.

I attended this event with an open mind. I sat in the back quietly and listened to the whole presentation. It was hard to stay focused after Ben Yousseff opened up her presentation by saying that she was not going to focus on the dates and facts of the conflict because the broader ideas and themes were more important. It was evident that if she did go through the history, her whole house of cards would collapse. As a history major, I was shocked upon hearing this. How could students at one of the most prestigious law schools continue to listen to someone after discrediting the discussion of key facts and details?

I am definitely open to hearing criticism on the Israeli government and its practices in the disputed territories. However, I also wanted to hear about the various human rights violations carried out by the extremely corrupted Palestinian Authority (PA). Unfortunately, the speakers at this event neglected to do so. The whole talk was about all that Israel was doing wrong to Palestinians under the PA and Israeli Arabs. Shakir of Human Rights Watch, conveniently left out the fact that Israeli Arabs have full rights, including suffrage rights and had to correct himself when it this was pointed out by another audience member. Ben Youssef continued to promulgate false information about Israeli- Arab’s rights in Israel when she confidently asserted that in Israel there is no basis of equality.

Israeli Arab woman voting

When the presentation was over, I asked, “Since we are talking about human rights, I was wondering if you could discuss the PA’s treatment of members of LGBTQAI community and persecution of Christian minorities.” They were definitely not expecting that question. Both Shakir and Ben Youssef hesitated to answer, but then answered the question. Their answers were unsatisfactory, to say the least.

Shakir took the lead on answering my question. He first addressed the issue of the LGBTQAI community. He started off by talking about how homosexual interaction was only criminalized in Gaza and not the West Bank. This was a clear attempt to glaze over the fact that gays are continuously persecuted and beat up by PA officials even though it is not officially illegal. He then veered off by saying that most discrimination was due to the social norms within Middle Eastern Arab culture. Although this is may be a societal issue, the PA is definitely complicit in it. Secondly, on the issue of Christian persecution, Shakir outright denied the fact that there was any form of discrimination against the Christian community. Acknowledging the dramatic decrease in the Christian population, he quickly blamed the Israeli occupation for this. After spending winter break in Israel and engaging with various Christian Palestinians, who shared their stories of persecution in the Palestinian territories, this answer upset me the most. Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian journalist for The Jerusalem Post, published an article detailing all these violations. He met with many Christians living under PA-controlled areas who witnessed their churches being burned down by different gangs with ties to PA officials. Additionally, their lives are constantly threatened by radical gangs within the territories. The PA does not protect them and rather facilitates this kind of action against them. Meanwhile, Israel ensures the protection of various minority communities such as the Druze, Christian, LGBTAI, and Arab-Israeli.

In sum, the event did not live up to its description. Both speakers neglected to call out both sides on the issues of human rights and left out key details. As any country, Israel does commit human rights violations. However, it takes so much necessary caution to prevent this and prosecutes members of the IDF who fail to comply with the laws in place. To truly end the slew of human rights violations against the Palestinians, I would like to see more groups condemn the PA for its heinous actions against its own people and the minorities it governs over.

This article was contributed by CAMERA Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Ariela Stein.

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