Op-Ed Written By Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) Executive Director Hagai El-Ad, and ACRI’s Information Center Director Tal Dahan, in honor of Human Rights Week. This is the first time the op-ed is published in English. The op-ed was first published in Hebrew on Maariv‘s website on December 7.

“Now, therefore the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights … that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
(From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948)

On December 10, 1948, still gripped by the trauma of the atrocities committed during World War II and the brutal violations of human rights for millions of people, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most countries voted to endorse the Declaration, and December 10 has ever since been commemorated as “International Human Rights Day” throughout the world and, in recent decades, in Israel as well. Sixty years later, this December, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is celebrating this milestone event with an array of events and activities.

While not binding on UN member states, the Declaration has inspired numerous international treaties and human rights activism, and is regarded as the basic text that establishes the range of recognized human rights. It opens with the pronouncement that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and then sets out those rights in thirty articles, which include the right to life, liberty, personal security, prohibition of slavery and torture, freedom of expression, religion and faith, the right to marry and establish a family, the right to due process, the right to education, the right to health, and the right to an adequate standard of living.

Also to mark this important anniversary, ACRI published its “State of Human Rights Report 2008,” a special report gauging Israel’s realization of the articles of the Declaration. Sixty years after the founding of Israel, human rights have not been enshrined in a constitution, and only some of them have been anchored in Basic Laws. The report found that the State of Israel has increasingly shirked its responsibility to ensure its citizens the most fundamental rights – to health, education, housing, and living in dignity.

ACRI has been working to promote the entire range of human rights and civil liberties issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories since 1972. Our mandate is to ensure Israel’s accountability and respect for human rights, by addressing violations committed by the Israeli authorities in Israel, the Occupied Territories, or elsewhere. As such, human rights abuses perpetrated by foreign governments or non-state actors are beyond the scope of our mandate. We believe that all rights of all individuals must be respected equally in order to forge a strong, just, and tolerant Israeli society. Given our role as government watchdog, we find the range of human rights violations listed in our report and in this article alarming, at the very least.

Inequality is growing and socioeconomic gaps in Israel are deepening. Freedom of expression and the right to privacy face new threats. Racist trends and those that limit basic freedoms and endanger human rights have increasingly found their way into bills tabled for legislation in the Knesset. Measures have been taken that evoke concern about the erosion of democracy, including injury to the standing of the legal system, particularly the Supreme Court; threats to civil society organizations and their activists; and encroachments on freedom of expression. Lacking in the current deliberations of the Knesset’s Constitution Committee on proposals for a constitution are effective safeguards of fundamental rights, and the standing and independence of the judiciary.

In modern Israel in the early twenty-first century, some citizens, not coincidentally, all of them Arab, live in third-world conditions – especially in the unrecognized villages of the Negev and in East Jerusalem. Eight years ago in October 2000, thirteen people were killed by the Israel Police – all Arabs and all but one citizens of Israel. Since then, despite unequivocal pronouncements by a government-appointed national inquiry commission, institutionalized discrimination continues toward the Arab population of Israel. Very little was done to advance equality while gaps between Jews and Arabs have only widened; and discrimination grows worse. Relations between Arabs and Jews in “mixed cities” such as Akko and Ramle are fragile at best. The violent events and blatant expressions of racism in Akko this October exemplified all of these quandaries.

Hovering above all this is the dark shadow of the occupation and the separation regime that is becoming ever more entrenched in the Occupied Territories. For forty-one years, Israel has denied fundamental rights to four million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s, and the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, did not change the fundamental imbalance of power in which Israel controls the lives of the Palestinians, and is responsible for the daily, severe, and ongoing violations of their rights. Under the rule of Israel, self-defined as a democracy, live several million people who are denied their rights under military occupation in which no rights are guaranteed: not the right to life, personal security, or freedom of movement, not the right to earn a livelihood, to freedom of expression, or to health. In the Occupied Territories today, most rights have long lost their meaning.

The reality we are painting is harsh and threats to Israeli democracy are only increasing. Yet, despite this, ACRI has achieved some impressive accomplishments. In the past year, there have been advances in the protection of the rights of workers, and in particular subcontracted workers, whose rights are regularly violated, the rights of debtors and the rights of the sick. In addition, Israeli courts have exhibited, in certain cases, a commitment to safeguarding freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to adequate housing, and the rights of workers, both Israeli and foreign. All that being said, there’s still a long road ahead.

The struggle to promote the true universality of human rights is not only ACRI’s responsibility but the responsibility of everyone who cares about the fate of this society. The anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one occasion to highlight these issues, but we must all work together – throughout this year and thereafter – to ensure that human rights are protected for the benefit of all of us.

Mr. Hagai El-Ad has extensive experience as a leader in the field of human rights, in Israel and abroad. Prior to joining ACRI, he served as the first executive director of the Jerusalem Open House (JOH), the community and advocacy center for the city’s LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. Mr. El-Ad has published numerous articles on Arab-Jewish relations and equality in Israel, LGBT rights, and more, in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, NRG.co.il, the Washington Blade, and elsewhere. Born in Haifa, Mr. El-Ad studied at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics for three years (1997-2000) as a pre-doctoral fellow. Prior to that, he completed his B.Sc. (Special Honors Program, 1994) and M.Sc. (Astrophysics, 1996) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Ms. Tal Dahan has worked at ACRI since 2001, first as the Information Center Coordinator, and, since 2006, as the Director of the Information Center. Ms. Dahan holds a bachelor’s degree (Magna Cum Laude) in Psychology from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.