+972 speaks with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s executive director Hagai El-Ad, discussing bittersweet legal victories, the downward trajectory of civil rights in Israel and how ACRI is facing its greatest challenge, winning over the Israeli public. This interview is one in a series of profiles on difference makers in the Israeli and Palestinian human rights community (edited for length).
By Matt Surrusco, +972
June 30, 2013
Hagai El-Ad’s change in career paths came from a self-realization that his destiny was not in some distant galaxy, but very much grounded on Earth, specifically, in Israel’s civil rights arena.
The executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), El-Ad, 43, earned a master’s degree in astrophysics before moving to the nonprofit sector. In 2000, he became the first executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, the LGBT community and advocacy center, and later founder of the annual Jerusalem pride parade.
In the last five years, under his leadership, El-Ad said ACRI has recommitted itself to expanding and diversifying its base of public support. As Israel’s oldest and largest human rights organization, strategic civil rights litigation, in addition to promoting social justice, the rights of the Arab minority in Israel and anti-racism education, remain ACRI’s mainstays.
+972 recently sat with El-Ad in his Tel Aviv office.
Are civil rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories more or less protected today compared to five years ago when you joined ACRI?
I think it’s a mixed picture. I’m interested in thinking about the question, not only in the context of where we are, but what’s the likely trajectory of things. I think that we’re in an interesting junction where, on the one hand when we think, for instance about social rights and economic rights, then the reality to date doesn’t support any estimate that the situation is better than what it was five years ago – although we’ve had some achievements during these years. But when you think about the trajectory in that context, I think we have an incredible fighting chance for significant changes in those arenas of human rights.
The picture is very different when we look at other human rights aspects. In recent years, many of them have been framed in the context of anti-democratic legislation, where we’re really talking about the foundations of any functioning democracy, including respect for the rights of minorities, especially the Arab minority in Israel, freedom of speech issues, [and the] capacity of the High Court [of Justice] to continue functioning in an independent fashion. And there, the process that we’ve witnessed is a very worrying process of gradual erosion of basic democratic principles.
I will look not only at the trajectory but also the gradient, the slope of the trajectory, where the process that we are facing is rather gradual.
There’s something very sinister and very dangerous about that fact because basically every month the public gets used to the new normal, which is just slightly worse than where we were several weeks or several months ago. It doesn’t look that bad, but that’s very different than a situation where something escalates, something snaps in a dramatic fashion. Everyone pays attention to it and perhaps mobilizes against it. That’s not the process that we’re seeing in Israel.
But if we were to pause now – and I think it’s not such a bad time to pause because we’re looking back at the work of the previous Knesset; the new Knesset hasn’t been [in place] for such a long time – and [to] look at the results of that assortment of bills and eventually some laws, then again it’s a complex answer.
There were dozens of bills, many of them did not become laws, and I’m very proud of the role that ACRI played in securing that achievement, which is nothing to sneeze at. In the face of such a crude majority, to be able to prevent so many bills from becoming laws, and diluting many of the others, that’s quite dramatic and tremendously important for this society.
At the same time, when I look at laws, even in the diluted versions that eventually passed, the Nakba law, the admissions to communities law, the anti-infiltration law and the anti-boycott law – were you to ask me four and half years ago if I ever thought that such bills would become laws in this country, and everything would just go on as normal, I would think that you were exaggerating by far. And yet all this has happened and as you notice, the sun keeps shining and life goes on. The public wasn’t horrified. It’s the new normal. And when this new Knesset now considers various bills it begins those considerations after that chunk of the erosion process has already taken place.
Now it’s not monotonically all going in a bad direction but it is doing that with ups and downs in that general direction. And that general direction is completely inconsistent with democratic principles.
What is the single greatest challenge your organization faces in promoting its mission?
Our vision, the kind of present and future that we wish for this society, is one of human rights, democracy, equality, social justice and an end for the occupation. That’s our vision. That’s what we’re working for. We’re very good at that. But at the end of the day if the vast majority of Israelis want something very different, it’s not going to matter how many cases we’ve won or will win. Because if the vast majority of Israelis want something very different, they’re going to get it, as undemocratic and unjust as it may be, because that’s the way things happen in real life.
So for us to win, we need the broadest and most diverse basis of support in this society that we can assemble. That’s the key challenge. While ACRI I think is well supported and even more than that well-respected, even by many people that disagree with us and don’t support us, there’s still a very long way to go to that kind of basis of support in this society that we must have.
I know often people have asked whether some of the anti-democratic initiatives or issues relating to human rights in the Occupied Territories that the government was advancing, the previous one, the current one, is in sync with the public. I think sometimes there’s a desire to portray the government here as extreme, ultranationalist, but also not in sync with the public’s desire. I wish that were the case but I think on many of these issues unfortunately the government is genuinely representing the positions of many of the people that supported it.
And in that we are in disagreement not only with the government – and ACRI is a government watchdog – but also in disagreement with many Israelis that want something different and we need to convince them. We need to interact with them directly because we’re not going to convince people and win hearts and minds only through strategic litigation and advocacy in the Knesset. That’s much of the work that we’ve been invested in, in recent years.
Is there room within the international human rights regime for some sort of international intervention in Israel/Palestine, legal or otherwise?
Part of what has become complex in that context is the fact that the Israeli public, generally speaking, is very suspicious toward almost any international criticism, not even intervention, criticism, unless it comes from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Health rights, housing rights, economic disparities in society, broad issues of concern, and [the OECD is] quite critical with regard to Israeli policies in reality in that context.
It’s wonderful to be part of the club of 34 (nations in the OECD). It’s not so nice to be number 32 out of 34. On so many of these issues, the response that you get in the context of the OECD is different than the UN, different that the EU, even the U.S. government [in that it] is actually listened to.
But besides the OECD, it’s really an exceptional example. The Israeli public is very suspicious and hostile toward criticism or beyond. That suspicion obviously is not just something that happens organically, just like that. It’s an issue that the government, in a very conscious way, post-Cast Lead and the Goldstone report, has been delighted to inflame. Through doing that to win what was – from [the government’s] perspective – I think, not even collateral damage but a target itself: the trashing of the entire Israeli domestic human rights sector, organizations and activists. That’s the reality in which we’re functioning.
That means that also such international actors that I think are sufficiently sophisticated and aware of this reality and want, not just to provide commentary on what is happening here, but to play an effective, significant role in making things better for Israelis and Palestinians, need to factor all this into their decision-making processes and whatever conclusions are made out of that, there are possibilities that go in a broad array of directions in that context.
So you see it as both the suspicion of the Israeli public and the government encouraging or inflaming that suspicion as leaving less room for international intervention?
It’s much more difficult for international voices to be effective in the context of the situation here, and in that sense the government’s project in achieving that has been quite successful. But I think especially when we look at the situation in the Occupied Territories so often the claim is that these are foreign forces intervening in domestic Israeli issues. But with all due respect, that position doesn’t make any sense. I’m trying to be polite. The Occupied Territories are not a domestic Israeli issue.
So the fact that being effective with regard to these issues and this society has become so much more difficult doesn’t mean that anyone with international responsibility is exempt from finding effective ways of dealing with that challenge. Now I’m not sitting here as an advisor to international entities, and at ACRI we have our own headaches to deal with, but obviously this is very unfortunate that that’s the framework of things, in terms of the challenging set of cards that we’ve all been dealt, well that’s another one of these. But, you know, that’s the situation and we’re here to deal with it, not to run away from it.
Do you ever wonder if your work legitimizes the occupation by working for change from the inside?
Yeah, we think about that every day, especially in the context of litigation. The question was asked specifically in that context some years ago in this organization, and also in others. Basically the framing of the question often is, the Israeli High Court of Justice is so respected internationally so certainly from the outside it looks as if there is proper legal oversight of the occupation. But we that litigate here and lose so many of these cases, [we] openly say that the decisions of the High Court have not delivered a protection for basic human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. So that’s very different than having proper legal oversight of the occupation.
Certainly some of the decisions of the High Court have made a difference. Certainly things may have been much worse in a variety of ways without these cases. But again, in the big scheme of things the question is a very valid one. We’re thinking about some aspects of what we do.
We have much less of an appetite for litigating such cases in the High Court as a result of that process. And we’ve shifted a lot of our focus with regard to our work in the OPT to public advocacy and public education. So that doesn’t mean that we’re not continuing to litigate some OPT cases. We are and whenever we think it’s the right decision we will. But we’re much more careful about the cases that we pick in that regard because we don’t want to blindly serve that process.
It’s also very important for us to speak openly about decisions of the High Court when we disagree. Often with regard to such cases in the OPT, we disagree. The picture becomes more complex with regard to the OPT because sometimes it’s even more problematic with the cases that we win. That you win a case, and then you, Israel, the High Court get wonderful headlines, also internationally, but the reality doesn’t change. So it’s even worse.
The key example of that is the case of Highway 443, the segregated highway that connects Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It runs parallel to Highway 1, but unlike Highway 1, goes into the Occupied Territories and then back out of them and to Jerusalem, used for an easier commute for Israelis from here to there. But originally built on land confiscated from Palestinians living next to where that road was built.
When that confiscation was challenged, when it happened, the case that the state brought was that it is actually legal for the occupying power to develop the occupied land for the benefit of the occupied people. And the state said, well, it’s actually going to be used mostly for Palestinians for an easier commute to Ramallah, and by chance Israelis will also use it and that’s how that became kosher. But then after the Second Intifada, and some terror attacks on Israelis on the road, the army completely banned – actually denied it and we were able to prove it – the road to Palestinian traffic to make it safe for Israelis. Although the only way to [really] make it safe for Israelis would be to completely ban the road to Israeli traffic because as you recall, the original reason that the road was built was for Palestinians, not the occasional Israeli commuters. But obviously the real idea was to ban the road completely to Palestinians
So we litigated that case in the High Court against a segregated road in the Occupied Territories. We won that case, but the decision that the justices made was only saying that the military commander doesn’t have the authority to completely – highlight completely – ban the road to Palestinian traffic. So that was enough to win headlines in the New York Times and everywhere: “Israeli High Court of Justice Says ‘No’ to Segregated…” You know, wonderful case. Excellent victory. But obviously, the IDF read the decision of the High Court very carefully and said, “So okay, we don’t have the authority to ban the road completely to Palestinian traffic so we’ll almost ban it, almost completely to Palestinian traffic.”
If you go on Highway 443 now, you will see the situation has almost completely remained the same. But no one forgot the headlines that the High Court said no to segregated roads.
Obviously the High Court isn’t going to end occupation for us. We’re not a peace organization. We’re a human rights organization so we don’t have any position with regard to the specific political solution and what lines will be drawn on a map with regard to an end for the occupation. However, the occupation in and of itself is inconsistent, and will never be consistent with respect to human rights. That’s why it has to end. Israel is the occupying power. That’s why it’s Israel’s responsibility to end the occupation. How specifically it ends, as long as it ends in a way that respects human rights for all, that’s beyond ACRI’s mandate. But to reach that obviously all of us need to do much more than litigation.
What has been your organization’s greatest accomplishment under your leadership?
When thinking about the last five years, it’s really about continuing to maintain and develop that jewel in ACRI’s crown, strategic litigation, and continuing to be the number one nonprofit, civil liberties law firm in Israel. And bundling it with public positioning and engagement that I believe is broader, more diverse and forward-looking with regard to our commitment to engage the Israeli public on our issues. You can see that in the Human Rights March. That is an initiative we began some years ago. You can see that in our membership. You can see that in the people who “Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. We’re bringing human rights to the 21st century in Israel in an engaging, positive way and withstanding the current political circumstances that we’re facing in this society.
What has been your most humbling experience working in the human rights field?
[I would say Operation] Cast Lead. To see such violence and such horrible numbers of civilian causalities, and to feel almost completely paralyzed. Sometimes, especially those that criticize ACRI, and others in the sector, portray us as so powerful. We don’t set policy in this country and we’re not the commanders of the IDF. This is a civil society, non-governmental organization with a modest budget and wonderful committed employees, nothing more, nothing less. I think we’re quite strong. I think we’re great, but that’s it. When you look at that [conflict] and you are so powerless in stopping that, it’s a terrible feeling. The reality here keeps suggesting, time and again, such levels of violence.
There was also a frustration about just getting information out. I’m not saying anything new here. But the kind of media coverage that most of the Israeli public got was a very sanitized version of reality and that’s an understatement. So if you are a human rights organization that had the actual facts – not different facts, but just the facts about what was really taking place – it’s a level of frustration even beyond the level [resulting from] people disagreeing with you. But you know, let it be known that this is what’s happening. And then maybe we can disagree on the facts. But let’s have the data out there.
Not to be able to have that space in the media was – again extremely troubling is an understatement. One of the things that ACRI did eventually was to take out a full-page ad. You just can’t get [the facts] out so you’ll buy [an advertisement] to have your message there. Again whatever resources you actually have are not that much. So we did something very irregular for us and we took out a full-page ad in Haaretz with basically just one word in it, saying “enough.” And the graphic was tombstones of children because there were so many children who died in Gaza.
What do you hope ACRI will accomplish next? What’s the goal on the horizon?
Exactly continuing in that path. But that path is not just about – as if that’s an easy go – expanding the base of support in terms of sheer numbers, but also diversifying it. There are a lot of voices in Israeli society that are very suspicious of human rights, for a variety of reasons. Some of that criticism and suspicion is unfair. But some are questions that we need to listen to and also think about the ways in which we need to change so that we are heard, relevant and more effective in this society.
When we think about Israel, coming from abroad often there’s a fantasy of Israel as a future or current liberal democracy in the shape of other liberal democracies. For a moment I’ll put aside the questions, and I have many criticisms, and I have much with regard to other liberal democracies as if they are so liberal or so democratic. We can talk about France, and we can talk about the U.S. and we can talk about other countries. [But] my responsibility is Israel and not any of these other countries.
This country too is less liberal and less democratic and less secular than that fantasy of this place, of this society. That’s the way it is and we need to think about how we can make human rights relevant to people that are less secular, less liberal and have a different set of values than that liberal, secular set of values, and to do that from a place that genuinely acknowledges and generally respects the true diversity that exists in Israeli society.
The word I often like using in that context is “glocalization.” Human rights on the one hand, you know, are local, but global. So human rights is a global concept, a universal [set of] values. But if we are unsuccessful in “glocalizing” universal human rights to this society, then we will lose. That’s the challenge. And we’re here not to lose. We’re here to win.