I recently had the opportunity to attend RightsCon, a convention which brought over 8000 participants from 174 countries to discuss ‘human rights in the digital age’. The breadth of topics and attendees was astounding. I was able to chat with an investigative journalist from Jordan, a Bolivian environmental defender, and representatives of an organization called ‘Future of Life’ that has tasked itself with identifying potential causes of mass extinction of the human race and doing something about them, among many others.
The most common session topics had to do with regulating social media and artificial intelligence, but there were many more. I listened to a panel of sex-worker advocates explain how in their view rules aiming to stop trafficking and child- abuse unintentionally violate the rights of individuals who chose sex work voluntarily as well. I attended a session titled ‘Squid Games in the Hermit Kingdom’ in which several people who recently fled North Korea explained what methods that population uses to access Western media in spite of it being banned, along with the horrifying punishments if they are caught.
One session I was particularly interested in focused on the responsibilities of social media platforms to regulate content under humanitarian and human rights law. While this is an important issue everywhere, it comes up frequently in the context of the Israel- Palestinian conflict as well.
The panelists were all of the opinion that social media needs to do more to exclude harmful content. One panelist, a Palestinian woman named Marwa Fatafta, repeatedly cited Israel as an example. In her view Facebook is wrong for allowing the Israeli government to post what she considers misinformation, while at the same time also wrong for banning many Palestinians under its policy of excluding dangerous organizations and individuals whom she believes aren’t dangerous at all.
Be that as it may, what most grabbed my attention at that session was a question asked by one of the attendees. He introduced himself as working for an NGO which protects Palestinian rights, then said he wanted to ask about non- state actors. He made reference to a specific incident, saying that settlers had used Facebook to organize an anti- Palestinian pogrom, and demanding to know why Facebook had not yet deleted their accounts.
I was of course stunned by his use of the word pogrom. And the first thing to note is that he butchered it completely, pronouncing it ‘PAH- grem’, which is a strong hint he has no idea what it is and has likely no clue what he is talking about.
As wrong and illegal as violence against Palestinians is, it’s obviously a lot of chutzpah to publicly call it a pogrom. The word pogrom refers to widespread anti-semitic violence in Russia and then in Europe, as the government stood by and even encouraged attacks on Jews. When I hear pogrom, the first thing that comes to my mind is Kristallnacht, which left the Jewish communities of Germany in Austria in tatters and immediately preceded the horrors of the Holocaust. Obviously, Palestinians face nothing of this sort.
So why did this individual use this word? Especially since he can’t even pronounce it and probably isn’t really even sure what it means? I’ll venture a guess it’s because he’s discovered it’s a sure fire way of getting Jewish people mad. Case in point, me. It worked.
How to Respond?
I was tempted to immediately speak up. But I stopped to reflect for a moment, then did not.
An angry retort that nothing the Israeli military or settlers have done to the Palestinians should come close to being considered a pogrom would likely be exactly what this individual was hoping for. It would provide him a platform to rattle off a list of violence Palestinians have been victims of. He would include dates, locations, and exact numbers of Palestinians wounded or killed to make it credible, while of course omitting all context completely, then shake his head and announce that in his view that’s more than enough to be considered a pogrom.
Then what? An explanation of why what happened to the Jews of Europe was so much worse? In my view that’s the last thing anyone who cares about Israel should ever say. Wrongdoing can never be justified by claiming the perpetrator was previously a victim too.
How about retorting that groups of Palestinians have frequently committed violence against Israelis? While this is of course true, it would just be met with a litany of complaints about occupation. Pointing out all the restraint the Israeli military uses in dealing with the Palestinians and actions the government has taken to protect their rights and safety would just provoke yet another recitation of Palestinian grievances.
So for better or worse, I made no objection. The panelists answered that yes social media companies have to do better at monitoring incitement to violence by non-state actors and agreeing settlers organizing against Palestinians was a good example. And then there were more hands raised and the session continued on.
An Uncomfortable Feeling
But this left me feeling uncomfortable. Shouldn’t a convention on human rights be a place of sensitive dialogue and respect? Shouldn’t human rights activists, of all people, not use such offensive terms? And since Israel is targeted like this so frequently, it raises even a more basic question: Is a human rights conference a place where Israelis, and people who care about Israel, even belong?
So deep breath, and let’s keep a few things in mind. First, while use of the word pogrom was inexcusable, the underlying point of the question was still true. Settler violence against Palestinians is a crime, and social media companies should prevent their platforms from being used to organize it. Have we ever used language that is over the top or inflammatory when making a point? Let’s recognize that others may do so as well.
More important, the diversity of RightCon, and by extension the human rights community in general, guarantees that nearly everyone will be offended by something. Don’t you think people who passionately believe that all sex- work is inherently exploitative would be offended by the panel of sex- workers proud of their profession and campaigning for more rights? Wasn’t the panel on North Korea offensive to those who defend Kim Jong Un? For all the investigative journalists, political organizers, and NGO activists there is someone (and in most cases many people) out there hating their work.
Don’t Give Up On Human Rights
That’s the nature of human rights. It’s no different than any other system of shared values. Shared values doesn’t mean agreement. Countries have dueling political parties, religions have factions, and even social and community groups have rivalries and splits. It’s only to be expected that human rights activists will disagree about important issues and argue amongst themselves. Let’s also remember that the views and positions of Israel defenders can be felt as hurtful by the other side.
We absolutely should demand that Israel be treated in a way that is fair and respectful. This includes calling out the inappropriate use of the word pogrom, although I believe that in this situation that would have best been done in private should a proper opportunity have arisen rather than in front of an audience. But abandoning the human rights community over this would be a big mistake.
It’s impossible to have discussions with thousands of passionate activists from around the globe, all involved in controversial religious, political, and social issues, without anyone being offended. Israel can rightly complain that it is singled out more often than most other countries, but its experience of being criticized, sometimes with language that is inflammatory and inaccurate, is hardly unique. People campaigning for human rights should do a better job of watching their language. Then again, states should do a better job of respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the rights of their citizens. If states did that, maybe there wouldn’t have to be so many brash and irritating activists around at all.
Photo: Me with other University for Peace students at RightsCon in Costa Rica, June 2023