Human Rights in Tibet and Israel

DSC_0398 Dharamsala, July 23, 2010:  It’s so much of a truism that it’s almost trite to say it, but you really can learn a lot about your own situation by taking a look at what others face.

I met today with Urgen Tenzin, executive director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) based in Dharamsala, India (home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s government-in-exile).  One of my main impressions is how many more tools we have at our disposal in our battle for human rights in Israel and the West Bank than they have in their struggle to help their compatriots in Tibet.

There are about 6 million Tibetans still in Tibet – comparable to the nearly 6 million Jews in Israel.  So we share a common bond of “scale,” at least in terms of population; in terms of area, Tibet dwarfs Israel.

DSC_0399 TCHRD, a small NGO with a staff of 9, is exclusively focused on the human rights of Tibetans living in Tibet, which has been under Chinese rule since 1950.  Tenzin explained that they do not have the resources to address anything else.

TCHRD has no staff in Tibet—they mostly rely on reports coming out of China from refugees coming into India or Nepal.  Given the inherent biases of the Chinese court system – you don’t get to choose your own lawyer, and judges basically rule whatever way the state tells them to – there is not much point in fighting the egregious Chinese human rights violations against Tibetans in court.  With no resources on the ground in Tibet – one can presume anyone working for TCHRD in Tibet would be labeled “an enemy agent” – there isn’t much they can do there any way.

So their focus is on reporting and publicizing.  They collect information on human rights abuses in Tibet, and spread the word as far and wide as they can.  They participate in UN gatherings and seek support in the West.  Tenzin said the situation in Tibet/China is getting worse. The more economic clout that China amasses, the less willing Western nations are to challenge Chinese human rights abuses.  Sadly, money comes ahead of morals.

Tenzin sees some hope for progress however.  China is an odd amalgam of communist ideology and one party control and capitalism.  He doesn’t see that as a stable combination, and he believes that eventually their form of government is likely to change.  TCHRD is wisely preparing for that change by addressing their message to as many Chinese, both overseas Chinese and in China, as they can.  He says they get a positive response from Chinese intellectuals; most Chinese are oblivious to problems in Tibet.  He says the Dalai Lama’s position is one that the Chinese should not find threatening: he is asking for autonomy within China, not for full independence.  He is asking to keep Tibet Tibetan.  Yet the Chinese are suspicious, and no doubt fear it would lead to a call for independence, and it could also lead to unrest among many of China’s other minorities.  In the meanwhile, China continues to flood Tibet with ethnic Han Chinese (now some 7 million of them), bribing people to move there with low interest loans, jobs, etc., making the Tibetans a minority in their own land.  Tibetans are not free to practice their own religion without government interference – monks have to sign loyalty oaths before they can enter a monastery – and anyone who speaks out against the Chinese is liable to torture and/or imprisonment.  Persons designated as reincarnations of earlier lamas have to be approved by the government, and one that was designated without government approval has disappeared.

By contrast, in Israel Rabbis for Human Rights is not only a rabbinic voice of conscience, but we also have the ability to actually do work on the ground to prevent and redress human rights abuses.  The Israel Supreme Court is famously – some would say “notoriously” – independent, and usually (but not always) comes up with just and reasonable decisions.  It’s sometimes a problem getting the government to obey the court’s rulings, but at least you can bring claims to court and get them addressed, unlike in China.  And we have people on the ground in both Israel and the West Bank.  Our grassroots and field work is an essential part of what we do, and gives our messages much more authenticity and power when we can bear witness in a direct way to abuses that are going on in territories under Israeli control.

I was a little disappointed that they do not directly involve teachings from Tibetan Buddhism in their human rights work.  The Dalai Lama speaks frequently about the centrality of compassion to his religion.  The duty to be compassionate is the flip side to the right not to be oppressed.  In that sense, Judaism and Buddhism share a fundamental philosophy – a focus on duties, not a focus on rights.  In principle, duties should be much more powerful than rights in improving the lot of the world.  If you have a duty to be compassionate, if you have a duty to see the Divine in your neighbor, if you have duty to take care of others, you will have to get off your tush and help.  On the other hand, if someone has a “right,” but no one has a corresponding duty to attend to that right, he may be left to suffer for a long time.

DSC_0389 PS: Dharamsala is a beautiful place.  The picture at left is the view from my hotel room.

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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