Several days ago Israel’s high court voted to uphold the Israeli government’s revocation of Omar Shakir’s visa to work in Israel, thereby clearing the path to deport him. Shakir is the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch.
Shakir’s visa was revoked under a 2017 law allowing Israel’s government to refuse entry to anyone who ‘publicly calls for boycotting Israel or any area under its control’. The purpose of this law was to enable Israel to deny entry to BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) activists, both to deter BDS activism in general and also to prevent BDS supporters from using visits to Israel to promote the BDS campaign.
What Shakir Called For
Shakir has taken to twitter to call for companies to not do business in the occupied territories, to applaud Airbnb’s (subsequently reversed) decision to refuse to list housing in settlements, to advocate for FIFA to take sanctions against Israeli soccer teams due to matches in the settlements, to praise a Spanish train manufacturer for refusing to work on Jerusalem’s light rail since some of it goes over the green line, and more. When he was younger, before he began working with Human Rights Watch, Shakir may have advocated more general boycotts of Israel. But the details of that are not as well established, and since that is in the fairly distant past it doesn’t seem to have played much role in the current court case.
Shakir maintains that all of his twitter advocacy is in keeping with the general policies of Human Rights Watch (HRW). Human Rights Watch says that it neither advocates for nor opposes boycotts of Israel proper, but it does support a boycott of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli government, of course, refuses to accept such distinctions. According to the 2017 law, calling for a boycott even of just the settlements is enough to be denied a visa.
Human Rights Watch and its allies have complained bitterly about the chilling effect this expulsion will have. For example, Michael Sfard, one of the lawyers representing Shakir, wrote on Twitter: “The ruling gives the Israeli government a dangerous and antidemocratic veto over the identity of representatives of international organizations operating in Israel and the territories. Today, Omar is being expelled. Tomorrow they’ll expel representatives from other organizations, foreign journalists and basically anyone who criticizes government policy in the territories.”
Israel says it Objects to Shakir Only
But is that really so? Israel’s government seems to have in fact taken great pains to make clear this case is about Omar Shakir only, and that human rights advocates in general will still be allowed to work. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, the minister who heads the fight against the BDS movement, specifically said that Human Rights Watch was welcome to appoint another representative in Israel in place of Shakir. And the high court judges specified in their ruling that their decision was about Shakir as an individual. It has no bearing on the work of other rights advocates and does not mean that Israel is closing its gates to other representatives of Human Rights Watch.
Why it’s important to israel to get shakir out
The reality is that reports compiled by Human Rights Watch, along with those of other similar organizations, can carry significant influence in global politics and Israel is therefore very sensitive to them. We all know that human rights investigation is politically fraught, and all sides are likely to decry any criticism or condemnation as biased against them. Human rights investigation therefore requires the utmost impartiality from those doing the work. When investigators are seen as having taken sides in a political dispute, their findings will inevitably be rejected outright by whatever side believes itself on the wrong side of the investigator’s prejudice.
Shakir and Human Rights Watch clearly have valid reasons for viewing Israel’s settlements as illegal. They can site numerous U.N. resolutions, international conventions, and so forth. But the fact is that Israel’s government doesn’t agree. Israel’s position may be opposed by most of the world, and Shakir may be completely convinced that Israel is wrong and the rest of the world is right, but that doesn’t mean Israel can’t at least present its view that the settlements are legitimate. Shakir and many others may see Israel’s reasons as invalid, but they should at least respect Israel’s right to argue its view.
It’s therefore only to be expected that if someone calls for boycotting the settlements, Israel sees that person as biased and already having made up their mind against it. Once Shakir has publicly sided with those claiming the settlements are illegal and rejected Israel’s position, Israel believes he will automatically side against it on other questions too.
Whether Shakir’s investigations are in fact biased is a separate question no one can truly answer. But just as a judge’s ruling will be questioned if there is even an appearance of bias or impropriety, so too here. Israel fears Shakir’s work will be slanted, and does not want to risk his investigations being presented authoritatively to the rest of the world. From their perspective, then, seeking to have him removed makes sense.
Human Rights Watch Should be More Neutral
Since HRW maintains that Shakir’s advocacy is completely in keeping with their official positions, and any replacement for Shakir is likely to voice similar views, one could ask what’s the point of replacing him? If anything, though, that is an indictment of HRW in general. For HRW to be a more effective and universally respected research organization it should adopt a policy of increased neutrality. If HRW itself, along with its field workers, would stick to research and refrain from advocating for any boycotts at all, their credibility as researchers would certainly go up.
That’s why Human Rights Haggadah is Educational only
Let me conclude that this is why the Human Rights Haggadah’s mission is educational, rather than advocacy. Once someone begins to advocate, they lose credibility as an educator. People will wonder, ‘How can I trust them to present all sides fairly? The way they portray things must be slanted towards the side they are advocating for.’
Of course, if education never leads to advocacy, then what good is it? I absolutely believe we need to advocate for human rights! But advocacy needs to grow out of both a sound foundation of what human rights mean in general, and what the facts are in a given situation. And to create that foundation, education has to come first.
For Additional Information and source material See:
Background about Shakir’s advocacy compiled by NGO Monitor
Opinion Piece written by Shakir explaining why he should not be deported in the Washington Post
Official Reaction from Human Rights Watch
Coverage of the High Court decision allowing Shakir’s deportation from the Jerusalem Post