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Sept. 20, 2013

Jewish and democratic?


Independent and non-partisan, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) was established in 1972, making it Israel’s oldest – and now largest – human rights organization. ACRI executive director Hagai El-Ad visits Canada next week for a series of talks entitled Meeting the Challenge: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, a brief tour that will include a stop in Vancouver next week.

Hosted by the New Israel Fund of Canada, El-Ad’s talk will introduce ACRI, which he described as “an independent, civil society, Israeli government watchdog. We advocate, litigate, campaign and educate for human rights, civil liberties, democracy, social justice, equality and an end for the occupation. Thousands of Israelis are involved with ACRI – through membership, donations, our annual human rights march, all the way to ‘liking’ us on Facebook and getting involved online. Over the years, many of the protections and advances in protecting human rights in Israel were the result of ACRI’s strategic litigation, campaigns, and advocacy.”

Haifa-born, El-Ad started out in the sciences, completing a master’s degree in physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and doing a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. In 2002, he launched what has become Jerusalem’s Annual Pride and Tolerance March, and he’s authored numerous articles on the issues of equality in Israel, Arab-Jewish relations, LGBT rights and more. El-Ad arrived at ACRI in 2008 from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH).

“My experience at the JOH was eye-opening and motivating,” El-Ad told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “While JOH was a local (Jerusalemite) organization focused on a specific issue (LGBT rights), it was, at the same time, an experience that went beyond the single issue or the local – because of Jerusalem’s diversity and the issues it brings front and centre: broad questions of equality, democracy, social justice and the occupation. All these are, of course, issues that are part of the core mission of ACRI – an organization that has led since 1972 the struggle on these issues in Israel, not on behalf of a single community or a specific right, but with a universal approach, advocating for 100 percent of the rights for 100 percent of the people.”

To meet the challenge of ensuring equal rights for all, Israel must come to a better understanding of the tension between what it means to be a democratic and a Jewish state, believes El-Ad.

“Of course, people’s very definition and understanding of even the most direct of terms – equality, democracy – changes, not only with geography from society to society, but also changes with time,” he explained. “When we think of equality, who do we count in the group of ‘equals’ and how does that impact what discrimination is, and so on?

“In Israel, we face a reality in which a promise of ‘full and total’ equality to all citizens has gone hand-in-hand together with policy-driven discrimination against Israel’s largest minority group, its Arab citizens. Over the years, ACRI has worked extensively on this issue, with significant achievements. Yet, we still have a long way to go in the fight against discrimination.”

ACRI is not a “Jewish” or “Arab” organization, El-Ad said, and discussions over Israel’s “values” can be loaded with controversy, depending on who is speaking. “We are a human rights organization and, of course, we have board members, staff, etc. ... some are Jews and some are Arabs, in a way not very different than Israel as a whole, where one in five Israelis is Arab. I, myself, personally am Jewish, and I happen to care deeply about Jewish identity, but when I speak on these issues, these are not ACRI positions, but rather my personal thoughts.

“Often in Israel these two aspects [democratic and Jewish] are presented as contradictory, as if we need to make a choice between the two,” he added. “I reject that choice as false. For me, the less equal society is, the less Jewish it is. So, it is not a choice between one or the other but, rather, we can have both or lose both. Of course, when I write here about ‘more Jewish,’ I am not measuring Jewishness through demography, but through the way people – all people – are treated.”

Two of ACRI’s main concerns are anti-democratic initiatives presented in the Knesset, and leadership in various levels of municipal and state government. To that end, it “seeks redress before district and labor courts, government ministries and Knesset committees,” and has brought precedent-setting litigation to Israel’s Supreme Court.

Citing examples, El-Ad explained, “Current such initiatives include doubling the entry bar to the Knesset (from two percent of the vote to four percent) in a fashion that may effectively block Arab parties from passing this bar in future elections; the passage of a basic law (that’s a legal term in Israel for laws that are meant to be part of Israel’s future constitution and have special legal significance) with regard to Israel’s Jewish nature, a basic law that could become the formal basis for further discrimination; and legislation that will take effect beyond the Green Line in a way that will only include Jewish settlers while excluding Palestinians.”

The best way to deal with these infringements is “to get informed, get organized, speak out and stay committed,” he said. “In this way, we managed to defeat some of the worst such initiatives in the previous Knesset, such as the ‘loyalty oath’ bill and others. Eventually, it is about public support.”

Regarding ACRI’s work in the realm of international advocacy, there is an active and vocal role for Diaspora Jewry in promoting and defending human rights and civil liberties for all, “regardless of religion, nationality, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background,” according to the organization’s mandate.

“People all over the world – Jews and non-Jews – are taking a special interest in the situation in Israel and the occupied territories,” El-Ad said. “They take positions, make donations, write op-eds, call their governments with positions all across the imaginable spectrum on any of these issues. While ACRI is invested in engaging the government, the courts and the public in Israel, these voices too are being heard in Israel, directly and indirectly, and they make a difference – for better or for worse. What I wish for is that in the context of that global conversation, that people will be able to openly express their values with a desire to share a future for all Israelis such as the one we at ACRI envision.”

What would El-Ad consider a truly democratic – and Jewish – state?

“It would be a place where individuals and communities take personal ownership of identity, instead of disregarding such essential aspects out of a false sense that it is all somehow taken care of simply through the fact that the state is defined as Jewish and people speak Hebrew,” he suggested. “Fine. But what is one’s personal understanding of that? And what does she do about it? Being Jewish shouldn’t be left for the state [to decide], in a similar way that being democratic shouldn’t be left just for elections.”

Hagai El-Ad speaks Sept. 24, 7 p.m., at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. The talk is free and open to the public. Register at