The New Guardians of Human Rights

Adi Levy
4 min readMay 20, 2021

The recent Gaza-Israel clash has brought several high-profile celebrities to express their indignation about Israel’s actions in Gaza. Most of the criticism focused on the human rights of the Palestinian civilians while omitting the rights of Israelis.

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

There’s an increasing tendency in recent years to associate human rights with political advocacy. The connection seems natural. Human rights have become the bible of liberal discourse and are presented as the solution to all world problems. Advocating for human rights is not only compelling and appealing, it is also easy. It is compelling because everyone deserves human rights, and therefore advocating for human rights is equal to advocating for social justice. And it is easy because advocating for human rights requires no more than posting an emotional image on Instagram to draw attention.

In his Book, the Mass Appeal to Human Rights, Joel Pruce articulately writes:

“Human rights advocacy consists in simple acts, not heroic feats. No barricades or sit-ins. No threats of bodily harm or civil disobedience. Direct action manifests itself as one-off gestures and mere signals of discontent to a distant offender. T-shirts, wristbands, bumper stickers, tweets, likes, follows, hashtags, concerts, songs, television shows, viral videos, avatars, memes, op-eds, blogs, sports, comedy, and video games. Individuals engage in these sorts of practices because they are fun and social. They are standard leisure time activities and typical expressions of personal identity…” (2018)

For people adopting this form of advocacy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a comfortable reference point. This is especially true for Hollywood stars, celebrities, singers, models who wish to demonstrate responsible global citizenship by criticizing Israel for its part in a conflict they know very little about. Indeed, in this form of political advocacy, facts are negligent. A message that articulates a commitment to human rights keeps high-profile human rights activists in the safe zone because they arguably speak for the weaker side. What better way to demonstrate one’s moral commitment to justice, than advocating for the rights of disadvantaged people from halfway across the world.

But human rights are important enough to take them seriously. Their most important aspect is their ascribed universality and the fact that every person is entitled to them. This fundamental aspect of human rights, however does not get much attention when digital content is drafted to elicit an emotional reaction that relies on narratives of victimhood and provides an over-simplistic description of reality in which one side is the ultimate offender, and the other is the victim.

The spat of criticism against Israel in the recent round of violence exemplified this point. In the ongoing debate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the balance of power seems to operate as the determinant of morality. Israel is a thriving democracy and a regional power in the Middle East and that is enough to bring the Palestinian rights to the forefront while leaving Israelis’ fundamental human rights under the radar. Advocates of human rights like Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid, or Susan Sarandon who vehemently condemn Israel, do not speak about the two decades of attacks on Israelis rights to life and security. Instead, these figures and countless Hollywood stars and celebrities find it easy to make moral judgments about Israel’s use of force. Their urge to demonstrate commitment to human rights supersedes any rational thinking about the complexities of the given situation.

There are two problems with this form of human rights advocacy.

First, Such uneven framing fails to consider the mechanisms that allow the existence of human rights in the first place. Despite the divine halo encircling the idea of human rights, they don’t fall from the sky. States are those responsible for providing human rights. A sovereign state would fail to fulfill its obligation to protect its own citizen if it sits quietly while terrorists manifestly threaten to slaughter civilians and continuously bomb their houses and schools.

Hamas, which is the governing body in Gaza, also has a responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens. But, instead, it oppresses them on a regular basis and when war erupts, it uses its citizens as human shields and blames Israel for human rights violations to score some points in the media.

Second, it builds on a one-sided narrative of the Palestinian suffering and fails to mention Hamas’s aggression against innocent Israeli civilians. Consequently, such figures emphasize Palestinians’ human rights at the cost of completely ignoring Israeli’s rights to security, autonomy, self-determination, and dignity.

John Oliver recent monologue on the Israeli Palestinian conflict reflects this tendency. Oliver emphasized that the Palestinian side suffers more. He forgot to mention who is responsible for that suffering. Misleadingly describing the hostilities in Gaza, Oliver said that both sides are throwing rockets and missiles but egregiously omitted the fact that Israel targets weaponry reservoirs and rocket launchers and Hamas are trying to bomb Israeli civilians. Additionally, he mentioned that Israelis have the protection of the Iron dome to emphasize his point, as if Israel has to apologize for having the means to protect itself. Yes, Israel has the Iron dome. Its design is the outcome of Israel’s essential need to defend its civilians from Hamas’s relentless aggressions.

As an advocate of human rights, Oliver would been more loyal to his advocacy if he would have mentioned that Hamas has an obligation to protect its citizens and it doesn’t have to do much to fulfill that obligation. It only needs to stop its aggressions—it’s as simple as that. Almost as simple as the popular idea of human rights.

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Adi Levy

Ph.D. Visiting lecturer at the University of Haifa. Fascinated by the ethical questions of political science and trying to make sense of society and morality