Justice and human rights should not be controversial issues. Certain truths are, one would expect, universal. That was the point when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was so named. But for more than 60 years Palestinians have been denied justice and Americans have been denied the knowledge of human-rights abuses committed against them. Unless there is fair coverage in the media, government and courts, justice will continue to be denied.
In November 2011 Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign (MN BBC), a statewide campaign working to persuade the State of Minnesota to divest from Israel Bonds, filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota State Board of Investment (SBI). The suit charged that the SBI had invested state funds in Israel Bonds in violation of section 11A.24 of the Minnesota Statutes which limits foreign government bond investments to Canada; that the investment was contrary to the state’s obligation under the U.S. Constitution to comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention, a ratified treaty; and that the investment was otherwise imprudent. Although it is an important topic, the media, Legislature and courts seemed to work together to keep the issue from being publicly addressed.
In his book “People Like Us,” Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk examines practices of foreign correspondents reporting about Israel/Palestine. Most journalists rely solely on Israel’s official spin without investigating opposing positions. Israel’s government press offices promote pre-written stories to the press. Journalists exhibiting independence who try to investigate other angles are shut out and isolated, their access to information eliminated or reduced, leaving them ineffectual and less valuable to their news organizations.
Reporting on Israel and Palestine in the United States rarely deviates from the government line, says Marda Dunsky in “Pens and Swords.” According to Dunsky, this reporting almost never includes relevant context such as international law, human-rights consensus, or the history of the conflict.
The result of these failures is that only one side of the story is told, and most Americans never know anything but the official government position. Let’s face it, Americans are also lazy. Most will not seek out information that does not reinforce the official line. When a lazy news audience is combined with lazy journalism, the news becomes a cycle of one-sided coverage. The difficulty in disseminating other positions in this closed loop is monumental. This includes coverage of the events in Israel and Palestine, and those in the U.S., such as the lawsuit that MN BBC brought against the SBI.
The influence of the Israel lobby extends to state and local government too. Regarding Israel, most legislators believe that their political careers are imperiled if they speak in support of basic human rights or international law. And given how poorly the topic is covered in the media, legislators are assured that the public will not complain about consistent pro-Israel votes.
This was typified by the reaction of most Minnesota state legislators when confronted by MN BBC with facts about the Israel’s universally condemned human rights violations. Not a single legislator attempted to deny or rebut the facts we presented to them about these violations. Yet none would be courageous enough to speak publically. This was true even among those legislators who had visited the occupied Palestinian Territories and had personally observed the reality of the situation.
Just as disappointing is the pattern exhibited by American judges in dodging their obligation to make just rulings regarding Israel. Courts employ a legal loophole known as the “political question” doctrine, despite the Supreme Court’s pronouncements, repeated recently in Zivotovsky v. Clinton, that “the Judiciary has a responsibility to decide cases properly before it, even those it would gladly avoid.”
Law professor Gwynne Skinner found that U.S. judges regularly terminate cases involving Israel’s human rights and international law violations on the basis of “nonjusticiability” (not capable of being be tried) using the “political question” doctrine, even when identical facts in cases involving other countries have been found by the courts to be justiciable. Skinner maintains that cases which seek redress of Israel’s international-law and human-rights violations have been found to be “political questions” better left to the legislative or executive branches for resolution rather than the courts, and this determination has been misapplied.
By doing so the courts have avoided the responsibility to fairly hear cases, and this is in direct contradiction to the desires of the Founding Fathers. When a case is unfairly dismissed on “political grounds,” the plaintiffs in these cases are denied justice.
When MN BBC brought its suit charging the SBI with violating Minnesota law, a lower court dismissed it, in part on the basis that it involved a “political question.” It is no such thing. Minnesota Statutes 11A.24 clearly state which investments are allowed. Investments in foreign government bonds, with the exception of Canadian bonds, are not allowed. MN BBC asked the court to declare that the state did not have the right to invest in Israel Bonds. It did not ask the court to declare that Israel was an international law violator. That determination has already been made in other forums.
In addition, investing in Israel Bonds violates Article XI of the U.S. Constitution, requiring states to uphold all ratified international treaties. Since Israel Bonds are used for projects recognized by the U.S. government as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, a ratified international treaty, the SBI may not invest in them. These are not political questions. The SBI is violating the law.
MN BBC filed an appeal. A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court will hear the case on Thursday, Sept. 27, in St. Paul.
The record has not been good for getting the Palestinian side of the story out to the public, to legislators, or to the courts. Palestinians have been historically vilified in the United States in the zeal to show favoritism to Israel. If it is so difficult for U.S. citizens to gain recognition of a lawsuit filed in a state court on behalf of Palestinians harmed by international law violations, how much harder must it be for Palestinians themselves to find justice?
It is essential that those working on the side of human rights and justice continue to work to break through these walls of silence.
Sylvia Schwarz is an engineer living in St. Paul and a Core Team member of Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign.
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