You may wonder why a man just shy of his 88th birthday would get up at 5 in the morning to fly to Omaha to give a speech. Frankly, since accepting this kind offer, I’ve wondered myself. Here’s why. Having devoted much of my life to trying to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come alive in many places in the world, I have become alarmed at how some human rights organizations, including the one I founded, are reporting on human rights in the Middle East.
In reading about the discussions and actions of students on American campuses, I learned, of course, that the Israel-Palestine issues were very polarized, sometimes hostile, and that a lot of the hostility was by students angered over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the endless process of trying to establish a second state.
I know we all believe in free speech. We believe in equality for women. We believe in tolerance of each other’s religious beliefs and in an open campus. When I go back to New York, tomorrow night, I will be attending the 150th anniversary of Bard College, a college very involved in the Middle East, as it has a combined degree program with Al-Quds, the Palestinian university in Ramallah. Here is what Leon Botstein, Bard’s President, says about education: “Education is a safeguard against the disappearance of liberty, but only if it invites rigorous inquiry, scrutiny, and the open discussion of issues.”
Believing in all these values and the others of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what is taking place on American campuses puzzles me. It seems to me that the State of Israel has all the values we just outlined. It is surrounded by 22 Arab states occupying 99-1/2% of the land in the Middle East and these states do not share these values. Israel, which occupies less than ½ of 1%, does share these values. There is a battle about two things: First, the size of the 23rd state, the new Palestinian state, which at present has many of the same values as the other 22 states. Secondly, the claims of many Arab states, Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, about the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. I don’t think human rights organizations alone can solve this mess but I do wonder about the discussions on many campuses, particularly about Israeli abuses, regardless of what you believe about them, and whether they are constructive. I don’t see how discussions of Israeli abuses can take such precedence over the kind of state that will be next to Israel. That is, not only internally, although human rights advocates should care about that more than they do, but in its foreign policy toward its neighbor Israel.
With this and similar thoughts on my mind, I decided that accepting the honor of speaking here tonight would make me sort things out about the difficult situation that exists and then take this one opportunity to try and articulate my thoughts. So, here I am to do that.( Collapse )
Robert L. Bernstein, the former president and chief executive of Random House, was the chairman of Human Rights Watch from 1978 to 1998. This speech was delivered at The Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights, University of Nebraska at Omaha on November 10, 2010. Here is the last year NYT op-ed he mentioned in the speech Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast