'Canceling' Human Rights | Opinion

For those who have been paying attention, the recent development of Human Rights Watch (HRW) attempting to "cancel" Israel as an "apartheid state" is not at all surprising. It is merely another manifestation of the war waged on the nation-state of the Jewish people—an ancestral homeland to which an indigenous people returned after millennia of exile and persecution, itself a direct result of statelessness. It is a war of words, to which international law, human rights and their institutions have been summoned and weaponized.

The HRW report, titled "A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution," constitutes an integral part of the continued refusal to accept the legitimate existence of a Jewish and democratic state in any form or within any boundaries. After myriad wars and countless other violent acts failed to destroy the nascent state with tanks and bullets, Zionism's enemies made a deliberate decision to exploit other available, less overtly militant means in pursuit of the same ultimate end. The launch of this war, which many refer to as "lawfare," was announced at various forums and occasions, including the infamous 1975 "Zionism is Racism" UN resolution that was formally revoked in 1991.

By then, though, it was too late. The damage to the hearts and minds of public opinion was done. Concerted attacks continued apace, including the 2001 Durban Conference "against racism"—which was actually a conference in support of racism against the proverbial Jew among the nations. The Durban "hate fest" set the stage for annual orchestrated "Israel apartheid weeks" on university campuses across North America and beyond, poisoning young minds and normalizing the acceptance of this moral perversion, with few questions asked.

But as history indicates, what starts with the Jews never ends with us. The "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" campaign that shook student organizations to their core, resulting in leadership infighting and resignations, was a precursor to the "cancel culture" that shuts down anyone who dares to question it. The mutating virus of anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism was designed to drive a wedge through the deeply connected Jewish people, as well as between the family of nations and Israel, enabling the gnawing away at the legitimacy of the single (tiny) Jewish state.

After decades of "Israel apartheid weeks" on campuses around the world, the HRW report is a final nail in the coffin of the "apartheid" narrative. It is vital to identify and expose it for what it is—yet another manifestation of a systematic strategy to replace bullets with words, still intent to destroy the state of Israel. As the report indicates, the war rages on. There is, after all, zero legitimacy for a true apartheid state to exist. It cannot be repaired and must be dismantled. And erasing Israel from the map is the ultimate goal of the "industry of lies," perversely done in the name of human rights.

Old City of Jerusalem in January 2021
Old City of Jerusalem in January 2021 AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

However, this war gnaws away not only at Israel's legitimate existence, but at the very foundations upon which democracy, international law and human rights rest. It is therefore not only the right and responsibility of Israel, but the imperative of all guardians of international law and human rights, to identify, expose and address the abuse and double standards that enable and empower this damaging process. Among its damaging lies, the HRW report strips Palestinians of agency; ignores the existence and responsibility of the Palestinian Authority; inserts the Oslo Accords, which merited Nobel Peace recognition, into the apartheid narrative; and erases the identity other minorities in Israel, referring to Druze, Bedouin and Circassian all as Palestinians. Overall, the report constitutes not only an obstacle, but an outright impasse to peace.

Robert Bernstein z''l, founder and CEO of HRW, understood the power of the tools he had championed in order to uphold, promote and protect human rights. He recognized that they were being weaponized to turn Israel into a pariah state. In his important New York Times 2009 article, titled "Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Middle East," he wrote: "Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world." He continued: "If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished."

How right he was. Much like what happened with Albert Einstein, the powerful tools Bernstein had helped develop, intended to be used as a force for good, have destructive potential and threaten not only the continued existence of Israel, but the foundational principles of democracy, international law and human rights. Left unchecked, these tools may end up empowering the continued culture of impunity toward the most truly egregious violators of human rights.

The HRW report can, and should, serve as a wake-up call. It underscores the imperative and collective responsibility of all trustees of real international law and real human rights. It requires we identify, expose and address the lies and double standards, demanding equal and consistent application of expectations and law, ensuring these powerful tools are not utilized to undermine peaceful coexistence. It necessitates an understanding that this is a war for our very collective survival, one that we can and must fight—together.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh is a public policy consultant, strategic advisor and former member of Knesset.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.