Robert L. Bernstein, Founder, Advancing Human Rights, received the Dr. Bernard Heller Prize at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/New York Graduation on Thursday, May 2, 2013, at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. The text of Mr. Bernstein’s response is below.
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Let me begin by thanking Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for giving me the Dr. Bernard Heller Award. When I was asked whether or not I would accept the award, I was given a list of past recipients, and I am certainly pleased to be on such a distinguished list.
Many years ago, I was given a quotation in a handsome frame, which said: “There is no limit to the good a person can do if he or she doesn’t care who gets the credit.” It has hung on my wall for many years, and I like to think that I believe it.
However, in my later years — I am now 90 — I have to admit that it is challenged by a line that creeps into my mind, which goes: “There seems to be no limit to the amount of praise I can’t get accustomed to.” So here I am.
My guess is that I was chosen for this award partly because I founded a successful organization called Human Rights Watch, was its Chair for the first 20 years of its now 34 year-life, and am still a member of the organization, serving as Founding Chair Emeritus. And, because, in October, 2009, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which I argued that Human Rights Watch was wrongly painting Israel as a pariah state in its reports on the Israel-Palestine conflict. And, more recently, I have established and been the chair of Advancing Human Rights, a new human rights organization, which focuses primarily on using the Internet to foster the spread of human rights.
Receiving awards should be a happy time. However, in a way, this is a sad moment. It is sad because while the cause of human rights has advanced so much in many ways since I started with Helsinki Watch 35 years ago, in some parts of the world, human rights have barely advanced at all, and in some ways, the cause of human rights is actually moving in the wrong direction.
In the short time allotted to me today, let me say a few words about one part of the human rights situation in the Middle East, and perhaps, what you as graduates of this great institution can do about it.
Three hundred million Arabs do not enjoy freedom of speech. Half of them, 150 million, as women, not only lack freedom of speech, but have barely any rights at all. And the private rights of how to pray and how to love are wrongly dictated by governments, all across the Arab World. Three years ago, we witnessed what was called the Arab Spring. Dictators who had oppressed their own people — and deceived them by telling them that Jews and Israel’s very existence were one of the primary causes of their misery — were toppled. It was a time for human rights organizations and governmental organizations to try to push for these rights long denied, with the hopes that they would take some root. One might have hoped, too, that it was also a time for human rights organizations to tell the people living in Arab countries that their governments not only misled them about their own rights, but also falsely portrayed Israel as a threat and an enemy to detract attention from their plight. Sadly, they did not do this. And the reason, in my opinion, is because of where many in the human rights community have placed their emphasis in recent years.
In my opinion, over the last few years, many in the human rights field have steadily retreated from upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead of focusing on insuring basic human rights for all citizens across the Arab world and in other closed societies, they have waded into the muddle of trying to become experts in the laws of warfare, deciding what constitutes a legitimate act of war and what does not, what should be considered a war crime and what should not. The result is that human rights organizations are trying to act like a referee at a sports event, calling war crimes of both sides. They come across like a group of litigator lawyers playing a game of “Gotcha!” mostly with the Israeli Defense Forces and occasionally with Hamas, Hezbollah, and from time to time, Iran.
Instead of this role, for which they are not well qualified, if they want to have an impact for good in the Middle East, human rights organizations should be focusing on state-incited hate speech. And, unfortunately, there is plenty of it in closed societies across the Arab world. If human rights organizations wanted to be open and honest with the suffering Arab masses, who are certainly suffering, they would point out that blaming Jews is a distraction and not what is holding them and their children back from enjoying the miracles of today’s world. For decades, government-sponsored hate speech in closed societies has been fostering a revenge rather than reform mentality.
Here’s where you come in. State-incited hate speech in closed societies by Arab governments and Iran, among others, for over 65 years has had an enormous effect. It has prevented peace. It has had a chilling effect on minorities, and not only Jews, but Christians, Bahai’i and others. And it has prevented the kind of popular empowerment that is the region’s only hope for a better future. Iran and its non-state allies, Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas, have actually been calling for genocide, not only of Israel, but of all Jews everywhere. They have not only called for it, but are carrying on a war of attrition, mostly against Israel, but also striking many cities throughout in the world.
Ayatollah Khamenei has declared that he can destroy Israel in 9 minutes. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has wheeled Iran’s largest rocket through Tehran, declaring: “This is for Israel.” Incitement to genocide is a crime under Article 3(c) on the Convention and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide-General Assembly Resolution 260 that came into force in 1951.
It is hard to believe that major human rights organizations have taken no action on the matter. They call the statements of the Iranian leadership “advocacy” – a form of protected free speech – rather than “incitement.”
Incitement seems to be among the few issues where Sunni and Shiite dictatorships and terrorist groups are in agreement. Sunni Saudi Arabia runs a huge textbook business that reaches Arab children of all ages, that calls Jews “Descendants of monkeys and pigs,” among other things, and they do a pretty good job attacking Christians too.
I, as a publisher, and you, as graduates of one of the great Jewish institutions in this country, know the value of words. The power of words in the past has certainly been recognized. Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, was tried at Nuremberg, convicted and hung. The power of speech was certainly recognized in the trials following the Rwanda genocide as well. Yet, the major human rights organizations have found no way to confront the problem and recognize that the 300-plus million people living in closed Arab countries have been taught for decades that a small Jewish state has no right to exist.
You, graduating today, cannot fight all these battles. But, knowing the power of words, you must somehow reach out to leaders of all faiths and you must ask them, as a step toward Mid-East and world peace, to stop the campaign of hate, not only in the Arab world, but wherever else it exists. You and your counterparts from other faiths must explain over and over again that hate is not the answer to your communities. This is not an easy job. But you have no choice, what is the alternative?
Thank you again, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, for giving me this prestigious award.