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A question of human rights?

A question of human rights?
The case of the BDS shows us that illegitimate criticism of Israel is often concealed under the veil of the struggle for human rights. We’ve seen additional examples of this during the fourth and fifth weeks of the course, in which we also explored its historical development. As part of this abuse of the important and vital issue of human rights, Israel and Zionism are delegitimized by presenting them as the key sites of an imperialist system - the ultimate oppressors, who are regularly accused of crimes against humanity, of racism, and even of Nazism. Thus, whether advertently or inadvertently, an absurd situation arises, in which antisemitic discourse and actions are propagated under the banner of liberalism and universalism.
Antisemitism is being laundered or masked under four major universal public values, the attempt being to indict Israel as the enemy of all that is good if not the repository of all that is evil. There are four major expressions of these universal public values under which antisemitism and at the same time delegitimization of Israel as a variant thereof is being masked or laundered. The first is the laundering of antisemitism under the protective cover of the United Nations. Every year there are some twenty resolutions of condemnation against one member state of the international community which happens to be Israel and four resolutions against the rest of the world combined.
So on the one hand, you have the singling out of one member state for differential and discriminatory indictment, a standing breach of the UN principle of equality before the law and the giving of the major human rights violators at the same time exculpatory immunity. That’s the first example. The second is the laundering of antisemitism under the authority of international law. Let me give you one example here as well. The major contracting parties to the convention regarding international humanitarian law have met three times in their history to put a state in the docket for its violations of international humanitarian law. That state happens to be Israel.
Not one other state - not Russia, not China, not Syria, you take the major human rights violators of the world - not one has ever been the object of a meeting of the contracting parties to the International Geneva Convention. The third example is the launching of antisemitism under the culture of human rights. Let’s face it, in a world in which human rights has emerged and for some time now as the new secular religion of our time, the attempt to portray Israel as the enemy of human rights is the attempt to portray Israel as it were as the new geopolitical Antichrist of our time.
And the example here is in the manner in which the United Nations Council on Human Rights, as we meet now in its tenth anniversary, the successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights, so it’s now the 70th anniversary of what is the UN agency responsible for standard setting in human rights, whose jurisprudence is taught in law schools and the like, well here again, Israel is singled out for differential and discriminatory discrimination. Let me give you one particular case study as somebody who’s appeared before the UN Council on Human Rights.
Every meeting and I repeat every meeting of that UN Council on Human Rights begins with an agenda specific item with respect to Israeli violations of human rights in the occupied territories. There’s another agenda item for violations of human rights in the rest of the world. And so before the meeting begins, you have an agenda specific indictment of one member state in the international community - an “Alice in the Wonderland” situation, in which the indictment is adopted even before the investigation begins.
And the last example of this laundering or masking under universal public values is the masking or laundering of antisemitism under the struggle against racism, where Israel is held out to be not only an apartheid state, but in fact a Nazi state. And let there be no mistake about it, apartheid is defined in international law as a crime against humanity. If you say Israel is an apartheid state, then what you’re saying is Israel has no right to be. And if that is not enough, you ascribe to it the notion of Israel as a Nazi state.
Not only does it have no right to be but in fact we have an obligation, an international obligation to see that this state has no right to be. So this laundering or masking of antisemitism under the four universal public values that I mentioned regrettably prejudices the whole corpus of these universal public values themselves. It erodes the authority of the United Nations under whose protective cover it is laundered. It diminishes the integrity of international law under whose authority it is masked.
It corrupts the culture of human rights under whose aegis it is laundered and, in fact, it demeans and shames the real struggle against the real racism, in particular the struggle against apartheid and Nazism by characterizing Israel as being an apartheid Nazi state.

Prof. Irwin Cotler (spring 2017)

The case of the BDS shows us that illegitimate criticism of Israel is often concealed under the veil of the struggle for human rights. We’ve seen additional examples of this during the fourth and fifth weeks of the course. Let’s explore this further.

How are antisemitic discourse and actions propagated, whether intentionally or unintentionally, under the banner of liberalism and universalism?


  • Bayefsky, Anne F., “Israel and the United Nations’ Human Rights Agenda: The Inequality of Nations Large and Small,” Israel Law Review, vol. 29, no. 3 (1995), pp. 424 – 458.

  • Cotler, Irwin, “Human Rights and the New Anti-Jewishness: Sounding the Alarm,” The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, no.1 (2002), pp. 3 – 10.

  • Cotler, Irwin, “Global Antisemitism: Assault on Human Rights,” in Charles Asher Small, ed., The Yale Papers: Antisemitism in Comparative Perspective, (New York: ISGAP, 2015), pp. 347 – 362.

  • Genser, Jared and Irwin Cotler, The Responsibility to Protect the Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • Gliszczynska-Grabias, Aleksandra, “Anti-Israeli Boycotts: European and International Human Rights Law Perspectives,” in Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed., Deciphering the New Antisemitism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), pp. 430 – 453.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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