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ACRI’s Director of Political Advocacy, Debbie Gilad-Hayo shares her personal challenges working in human rights 

Credit: Moti Milrod, Haaretz

My name is Debbie, I am a lawyer and have been working at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel for almost 20 years.

Three months ago, a frightening and threatening campaign of incitement and hatred was waged against me, stemming solely from the fact that I fulfilled my role as a representative of a human rights organization in a Knesset debate.

The threats to my life began after MK Zvika Fogel of Otzma Yehudit chose to take advantage of my participation in a Knesset debate on defending the living conditions and rights of prisoners in Israel Prison Services' facilities, which were worsened by the war.

Fogel lashed out at me, lied when he claimed I had come to arrange family visits for Hamas terrorists, sent me to watch Hamas videos and kicked me out of the discussion.

Fogel tried to create the false impression that the human rights arguments we presented regarding the most basic rights of prisoners in Israel, including those of prisoners in Neve Tirza (women's prison), for example, meant identification with Hamas.

He didn't stop at lies and manipulations – after scolding me for things that never existed, he posted the video on his Twitter, showing only him speaking his lies, encouraging its dissemination and boasting that he had taken me out of the discussion about things that were not even said by me. All this in order to score a few points in his political base. The video was distributed in all directions using various arms of the "poison machine",  and ignited a violent and distorted campaign against me.

Over the course of what seemed like an eternity, I received thousands of threats, curses, slurs, and hate messages on my personal mobile and social networks. The intensity of the threats and their concreteness aroused real fear in me and my family, to the point where ACRI decided to avoid unnecessary risks – hired a security company for me and raised the level of protection of the organization's offices.

But it wasn't only fear. the threats and poison received tremendous resonance on social media, a huge exposure that also spilled over into some of the mainstream press. There wasn't a single person among my family, colleagues, neighbors and friends and the community in which I live who wasn't exposed to it. I carry the anguish of the false slander with me even now, weeks later.

It is clear to me that this "poison machine" is designed to divert public anger from the government's failures and to accumulate some political capital. Fogel himself was completely indifferent to the personal consequences of the ugly and violent campaign he sparked against me as a representative of a human rights organization, as well as to the implications for the legitimacy and importance of the work of human rights organizations. maybe even to the contrary.


In any case, this event was the culmination of a long process that I personally experience as someone who has been working for 17 years as a policy and legislative advocate for ACRI. It is clear that human rights organizations and human rights issues have always aroused controversy, because naturally we deal with the most sensitive and controversial issues always, such as protecting the rights of prisoners and detainees, the rights of Arab society, the rights of refugees,  Freedom from religion, LGBT rights, and of course human rights in the occupied territories.

However, in the not-too-distant past, organizations such as ACRI were perceived as an essential part of democracy, as experts and professionals in their fields, and our position was considered at least worthy and important for discussion.

But in the past decade, since the beginning of the process of limiting the democratic space in Israel, which began with campaigns of incitement against organizations and human rights activists, a turnaround has begun. The virulent campaigns succeeded in undermining the legitimacy of human rights organizations and marking them as suspects and foreign interests. This delegitimization has succeeded in influencing the ability of the MK organizations, and sometimes entire factions, to avoid contact at all, or at least public contact with human rights organizations and their representatives, so as not to pay a political price.

Since the horrific massacre perpetrated by Hamas on October 7, we, my friends here, the dear and extraordinary staff of ACRI, have been coping, like everyone else in the country, with existential anxiety, heavy grief and personal injuries.

Alongside them, we are engaged in intensive and relentless work to defend human rights.

However, since the outbreak of the war, the treatment of human rights in general, and in particular the protection of populations whose treatment arouses controversy, has become almost impossible and unacceptable.

I want to tell you that every day I have to pick myself up again and convince myself not to be afraid and to continue to play the vital role of our organizations. I think of colleagues in other countries we are in contact with, in Hungary or India and even Russia, and convince myself to be brave.

Is our work effective under these circumstances? I'd like to believe it is. Even if at the moment there is not much attention, if any, among the public and decision makers, it is of great importance to us to the public discourse based on facts and humanism and human rights, it is important for this conference that is taking place here today, to know that we did not give up, did not give up and did everything possible to defend human rights in Israel.


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