Last year while working with an Israeli Human Rights organization in Jerusalem, I had an opportunity to see the State of Israeli through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compare B’Tselem (a human rights organization) activists to traitors, and condemned all the Israeli human rights organizations. This happened partly because of B’Tselem’s support of the United Nations whose agency, UNESCO, had passed a resolution that denied the connection of the Jewish people to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These events created a backlash against human rights organizations in Israel, and raised important questions on the issue human rights organizations and how they obtain their legitimacy?

Through various readings I have been able to explore that question, particularly, the State of Israel’s attempts in delegitimizing human rights organizations. My reflection seeks to answer the following questions: Can external validity such as the one provided by the international community legitimate Israeli human rights organizations in the absence of local support? Why do countries and leaders who often question the legitimacy of institutions such as the United Nations selectively rely on these same organizations to legitimate some of their local actions?  How can we explain the process of through which members of Israeli human rights organizations such Breaking the Silence lose their legitimacy considering that while serving as soldiers they were considered heroes? Does this lead to incompatibility?

These questions about the challenge of the legitimacy of Israeli human rights organizations occupies has occupied a central place in debates in Israeli and international media since last year. If legitimacy is a matter of consent (Zelditch, 2006), where do human rights organizations derive their legitimacy from, and given that they fight regimes and systems that perpetuate inequality, do they need any kind of consent to operate? Those eager to discredit human rights organizations in Israel argue that the organizations have lost touch with daily lives of Israelis, and that is why they are investing their efforts on the global front because they have lost all hope of generating change in Israeli public opinion.[1] They further argue that since the human rights organizations receive substantial amounts of funding from foreigners, they should not be trusted. Last year the state of Israeli passed a law that regulates Israeli human rights organizations.[2] The law undermines the legitimacy of the organizations by limiting their funding, and requiring them to state that they rely on foreign funding in all communication with the public and on TV, newspapers, billboards and online. The law also requires representatives of human rights organizations to declare that they depend on foreign contributions to the heads of parliamentary committees when participating in meetings. The idea here is to represent the organizations as deriving authority from foreign governments that fund them. Thus, questioning their legitimacy. Did they succeed? Although, I do not have statistics or any research to enable me to answer that question, through observation, and talking to Israelis as well as Palestinians, I learned that human rights organizations do not enjoy much support in the Israeli society.

Since the State of Israel presents itself as a democratic state akin to Western European or North American countries, the human rights organizations can claim legitimacy by appealing to norms, values, beliefs, practices, or procedures that are already accepted in a democratic society (Zelditch, 2006). But such a claim to legitimacy will only succeed to the extent that whatever it appeals to has already been accepted in Israel. For instance, the generally accepted human rights laws and conventions such as International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Convent on Civil Rights, and Universal Declaration on Human Rights. One will then expect that a country like Israel will allow human rights organizations to freely operate or better still, stop violating human rights. Unfortunately, the reality is different. So, how can human rights organizations in Israel gain legitimacy?

According to Zelditch, they need to challenge pregiven structures in Israeli society. These structures encompass norms, values, beliefs, purposes, practices, or procedures that legitimate power (Zelditch, 2006). They should strive to build local consensus “in specific, concrete situations out of whatever structure is pregiven and the specific circumstances of the situation” (Zelditch, 2006. P. 347).

NOTES

[1] Shlomi Eldar (2016). Why human rights NGOs are losing support of Israel Public. Al-Monitor, accessed on 3/27/2017 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/en/originals/2016/10/israel-human-rights-ngos-losing-israeli-public.html

[2] Cook Jonathan (2016). Israel seeks to publicly shame human rights groups. Aljazeera, accessed on 3/27/2017 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/israel-seeks-publicly-shame-human-rights-groups-160717070527290.html

Zelditch, M (2006). “Legitimacy theory” in Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. (California: Stanford University Press)

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