Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the
State of Israel
Before the 58th Session of the
UN Commission on Human Rights Geneva, 19 March 2002
Mr. Chairman, Madame High Commissioner, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The year that has passed since I stood before you last defies description. Words simply fail at any attempt to convey or encapsulate the suffering and despair that have visited so many people in the course of these twelve months.
But even in year of almost unmitigated disaster and tragedy, two dates stand out in mind as being even more horrendous than the rest.
The first, without any doubt, is September 11th. Still, six months later, the worst terrorist attack in history raises profound and bewildering questions for us all, and still the world is struggling to formulate an effective response to the threat of international terrorism.
In Israel we are grappling with these issues as we face an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks. Literally every day, innocent children, women and men are being shot and blown up, in discotheques, wedding halls, malls, buses, cafes and restaurants. We hear the leaders who undertook to resolve all differences though negotiation and not violence praising the heroism of the terrorists. And, perhaps most chilling of all, we hear the parents of suicide bombers, express the hope that their other children will follow suit.
The second dark date, to my mind, is September 9 – just two days before the World Trade Center Bombing – the closing session of the Durban World Conference against Racism.
Last year I shared with you my fear that there would be an attempt to hijack this Conference for political ends. And indeed, in an irony of epic proportions, this Conference against Racism itself hosted the most racist speeches and proposals to be heard in an international forum since the second World War. While doing nothing to help the millions of slaves, of impoverished and oppressed, this Conference became the mouthpiece for a new and venal form of antisemitism.
Antisemitism, the hatred of Jews, is the oldest and most persistent of hatreds but it has also proven to be the most adaptable. Like all the most dangerous viruses, antisemitism adapts itself to new surroundings and circumstances, clothing itself in a new garb in every generation. In our generation, at the Durban Conference and in organs and agencies throughout the international community, it has taken on the form of political demonisation of an entire nation – anti-Zionism. But, whatever its form, the basic truths about antisemitism still hold: It goes far beyond hatred of Jews. And, attacking the fundamentals of decency and humanity as it does, while Jews may be the first to suffer from its influence, they have rarely been the last.
September 11th and September 9th. Terrorism and antisemitism. Two atrocities that are the very antithesis of human rights, and which stand against the two most fundamental principles that my country and my faith stand for.
The first is the sanctity of human life. The State of Israel was born out of the ashes of the humanity’s worst abuses, motivated by the single most important idea the Hebrew Bible gave to mankind – that every man women and child is a reflection of the divine image and so is of infinite value.
Terrorism is the antithesis of this belief. It denies the sanctity of human life and sees it as nothing but a means to a political or ideological end. The lives and hopes and dreams of mothers and fathers, the futures of their children, are nothing but fodder for a campaign of fear and intimidation. Antisemitism, for its part, seeks to destroy the recognition of the humanity in others – to delegitimize, to dehumanize and ultimately to destroy.
And the second principle is that of tolerance – accepting other people, races, traditions and ideas. Israel has welcomed immigrants from every continent and of every color. We continue to strive for full equality between the various components of Israeli society and to see diversity as a source of richness and strength. We are proud of the role played by civil society, and many NGO’s in our society, and recognize that their criticism is vital to safeguarding human rights. It has the freest Arab Press anywhere in the Middle East. We have, I would venture to say, more opinions than we have people. Because, like every democracy, we believe that the truth lies not in any one opinion, but in the dialectic of debate between them.
But in stark contrast to the notion of tolerance, we see the poisonous marriage of fundamentalism and nationalism which fuels the current international terrorism, which knows no respect for the "other", and which as no vision other than total conquest and destruction. And we see the new antisemitism spreading like a plague, with attacks throughout Europe raising painful spectres of the last century, while in our region newspapers publish the slanders of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Arab leaders brazenly reiterate charges of deicide. Only this week, as Jews around the world prepare celebrate the Passover holiday, official Arab newspapers have published the age-old blood-libel that Jews use infant blood to make the Passover matza, repeating a lie that across the generations led to countless pogroms and loss of innocent life. How, against this background, and against the background of hostility and hatred we see in Palestinian schoolbooks and children’s television, will the next generation have any chance of even contemplating peace.
Both terrorism and antisemitism are profoundly and intrinsically opposed to these fundamental principles of human rights. Both are supported and financed by rogue states and regimes as a way to fight their wars on the cheap. And with internet available to spread falsehoods and hatred, to disseminate expertise on the art of mass destruction, both present a lethal cocktail of primeval hatred and 21st century technology.
How are we to fight these twin evils? I believe that we have to respond by reaffirming those values that terrorism and antisemitism stand against. We have to reaffirm the value of every human life, and recognize the profound and daunting truth that by letting others suffer we ourselves become diminished. We have to maintain tolerance. At those very moments of grief and anguish, when we are most driven to hatred and generalizations we have to maintain our vision of the humanity of the other. Because, even in the face of continued attacks, we have to remember that our greatest asset is not our military strength but the conviction that our actions accord with justice and humanity.
These are the tenets of my faith, that led me from Norway to Israel, from the rabbinate to politics. But, I must admit frankly, they are being tested today in a way they have never been tested before.
We did not choose to be in this frightful situation. To the contrary, the last Israeli Government, of which I was a member, made far-reaching peace proposals which recognised that without secure borders for the Palestinians there could be no secure borders for Israel, without dignity for the Palestinian people there could be no true dignity for Israelis, and without peace for the Palestinians, there could be none for Israel. But, despite the support of the international community for these proposals, the Palestinian leadership rejected them, and responded with a wave of brutal violence that has continued and escalated to this day.
This violence has created unprecedented challenges for anyone concerned to maintain a semblance of humanity in the midst of the conflict. Never has it been so hard to find the balance between protecting the lives of innocent Israelis threatened by terrorism and violence, and of innocent Palestinians living in those areas from where these acts are emanating. Never has it been so hard to find a way of ensuring security while easing the hardships of the Palestinians living under our control. To weigh up the risks of a terrorist attack today, against the risk of increasing the likelihood of a terrorist attack tomorrow. And in the face of increasing Palestinian incitement, and official support for violence, never has it been so hard to maintain a vision of dialogue and tolerance between Jews and Arabs. Never so hard to keep sight of the flickering possibility of peace.
These are painful dilemmas with no simple answer. They are issues on which Israel could benefit from shared experience and frank dialogue. But tragically, those fora which might have offered such an opportunity, are squandering it on political propaganda.
Could there be any forum more suited for Israel to engage in genuine introspection and constructive discussion on these issues than the Commission on Human Rights? And yet this forum has shown, again and again, that concern for human rights is secondary to pandering to political agendas.
How can we candidly discuss the appropriate measures Israel should take in the face of Hizobllah attacks from Lebanon when, notwithstanding Israel’s withdrawal to the last centimeter from South Lebanon in implementation of Security Council resolution 425, this Commission utterly ignores the Hizbollah attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory, and the plight of the Israelis kidnapped from over the border?
How can we discuss sensitive and difficult relations with the Palestinians when the Commission’s Special Rapporteur to the territories has an open-ended mandate, which does not even permit him to consider Palestinian terrorism and human rights abuses, and which pronounces a guilty verdict on Israel even in advance of his visit? A Special Rapporteur who, in his latest report, vilifies Israel for its security measures but describes Palestinian terrorists as displaying "determination, daring and success"?
What possible basis is there for any genuine conversation between us, when in shocking disregard of basic humanitarian principles of impartiality, Israeli actions are treated under one agenda item when the whole of the rest of the world is addressed under another? Could there be any clearer statement of singling-out against a country? Could there be anything more damaging to respect for human rights than this failure to recognize that if are human rights agenda is dictated by political considerations and not the needs of the suffering, then we are engaged in politics not human rights, and that if we are not concerned for the human rights of all human beings, then we cannot claim to be truly concerned for the rights of any,
That this institutionalized discrimination damages Israel on the political level is the least of my concerns. But I do feel cheated and betrayed, that by destroying the trust between us, this Commission has deprived Israel of the possibility of engaging in a frank dialogue that could genuinely help advance human rights in our region. And that it has deprived all of those victims of human rights abuses, whose grievances will never be heard, because the perpetrating states have managed to turn to the spotlight of attention onto Israel and away from their own dark corners.
The failure of this Commission to address the gross abuses of human rights in the Arab world is, it seems to me, a perverse form of reverse discrimination – indeed a form of racism. The suggestion that these are nations which do not need to be held to the same standards of behaviour, and that the atrocities committed at their hands are somehow less egregious, carries with it an implication that their citizens are less human, less deserving of rights, which is fundamentally opposed to the principle of a universal humanity on which the Commission’s work must be based.
These concerns have troubled Israel for many years, as we have followed the work of the Commission. But today they have greater urgency. At this very moment it seems that there may be an opening to stop the carnage and bloodshed that has cost the Israeli and Palestinian peoples so much innocent life. But such an opening needs to be cultivated and trust built. It is a genuine tragedy that this Commission, entrusted with the holy task of protecting human rights and freedoms, should endanger them, by adopting a one-sided stance dictated by political agenda.
Even as the darkest of forces visit our region, and there seems little cause for hope, the greatest human gift is imagination; to imagine how tomorrow could be different from today, and the lives of our children different from our own. I urge this Commission also to exercise its imagination, to consider how it too might be different, what impact it might have if human rights were really at the top of its agenda, if abuses truly were addressed impartially, and if it generated the trust and credibility needed to spearhead the coalition of all those who share the values it was established to protect.
For ultimately, just as terrorist and antisemites have learned to cross divides, to build coalitions and pool resources for their ends, so must we learn to do the same.
If the two dates I have mentioned gave me the greatest cause for despair this past year, there was one date at least that gave me some cause for encouragement and hope. On the 21st of January, two months ago, I was privileged to help organize and participate in the first ever Conference of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land, which took place in Alexandria, and which produced the Alexandria Declaration.
This brief document contains little or nothing that is new. Yet it was produced by Moslem, Christian and Jewish leaders engaged in genuine dialogue. Meeting at a time when a Palestinian suicide bomber exploded in the heart of Jeruslaem, and Israeli tanks entered the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, these leaders still found the courage to publicly declare their faith that we have to respect the integrity of each others’ historical and religious inheritance, to call for an end to incitement and hatred, and to urge the creation of an atmosphere where present and future generations can coexist with mutual respect and trust.
This remarkable encounter strengthened my conviction that things could indeed be different. That hatreds, even thousands of years old, may yet be overcome, and that our region, witness to so much blood, may yet become one of milk and honey.
I urge you, the members of this Commission, along with our neighbours, to join us in making it so.