The committee on Power, Politics, and Human Rights can be seen as consisting of three different parts: first two introductory sessions laying the groundwork for honest and direct dialogue in a respectful manner. The first of these two focused on the issue of stereotyping, prejudice, and shame. Specific playful exercises enabled the start of a discussion on the uncomfortable stereotypical notions among the participants about the “other”. This session laid open many underlying tensions which would later inform the discussions in varied ways. The second session was started with everyone reflecting on their experience so far at the MJC. This increased the awareness of the participants to the different perceptions in the room. Participants then had the opportunity to asks questions on each other’s faith, but also on political ideas, on the other’s country (or countries) of origin, on their ethnic background and other. This session on broadening the perception on the “other” was completed by the committee members presenting their homework: each one had chosen a minority (preferably one they didn’t belong to) and had researched their perspective on the current political situation that they face in their society. These presentations not only set the stage for a deeper discussion on politics, human rights and power relations in the societies in which we live, it also made the clearer cultural, historical, political, and economic diversity, and the specificities of the areas from which members were present.
The second part of the committee sessions focused on more clear-cut issues, such as Gender and Religion, Institutions of Power (e.g. States or the Media), Inclusion and Exclusion.
The discussion on Gender and Religion proved informative and personal. Questions of power structures which work at a meta-level (social tendencies and structural violence) were contrasted with individual behavior, an example: most rape is done to women by men, and its prevalence strongly suggests a structural tendency. To what degree are we as individuals part of these tendencies, both as men and women? Or how is the treatment of non-heterosexual individuals in our respective societies? But also questions such as the right of women to their own body, and body politics in general, were discussed. These topics brought to the fore many experiences of individuals in the group.
The highly critical discussions of injustices perpetrated on a regular basis against certain people (such as the systems labeled racism, sexism, and others) were challenged and had to become constructive, when the committee was tasked with trying to “build their own state”, i.e. to decide on the fundamental laws upon which this state would be built. According to the feedback of the participants, this exercise proved to be both enlightening and frustrating: defining the “most basic” terms proved to be highly difficult, since each fundamental right, though individually important, can be harmful to others’ fundamental rights. Cultural rights became difficult to uphold since they negate a certain aspect to individual rights, and vice versa. The question over the use of certain symbols, or the exclusion of certain (religious or political) symbols from aspects of public life were hotly debated. Mapping out the relations in which these fundamental rights stand to one another, in which they restrict and strengthen each other, was a difficult task. Headway was gained, though fairly quickly certain factions started showing their disagreements with the choices of the group as a whole. Over just a few hours of “constructive” state-building, the necessarily “reductive” decisions started paving the road to a multi-party system.
The continuation of the committee’s discussions then followed the committee’s wishes, based on a discussion about the thematic interests of the individuals in the group. The manner in which the individual preferences were taken into consideration (how do we vote?) showed signs of turning into a fundamental philosophical and political discussion, but the group’s interest in getting a proper discussion on “community, law and exclusion”, as well as on “the power and quality of the media” prevailed: After having discussed (even if lacking a proper conclusion) the fundamental rights of a utopian state, the discussion centered on the rights of “others” – to what degree should smaller communities, minorities, have rights of their own; how much space should “religion” have in the public sphere and who defines what constitutes a religious act? But also the question of rights: if a community has their own customary laws, to what degree should they be able to live according to this, where should the state interfere and with what right would the state interfere? For example questions of religious marriage laws, both Jewish and Muslim (but also Catholic or non-religious) were discussed, with an eye towards the issues of power of the community over the individual, but also the right of individuals to shape their own society and not just have a uniform way of life that necessarily needs to be the same for everyone. The prior discussion on the fundamental rights proved to be a good basis to highlight the difficulties inherent in these discussions as well, but furthermore, questions such as the ability of religious law to change according to the time, were raised. One of the ways in which differences of language became apparent here is that for some participants (both of Muslim, Jewish and other faiths) religious law was supposed to be built on a kind of immutable truth which lays the basis for these laws, found in the most basic religious texts. Variation through time was deemed possible, but was presented as making headway in our understanding of these fundamental truths. – On the other hand, the notion of laws serving a community in a specific cultural, historical and political context spurred disagreement with this way of looking at law, even at religious law: from this perspective, changes in the context could render old rulings unfit for the present, and the changes in notions of justice could make unbearable for a society what had once been accepted. The lines and positions were not of such a uniform character, rather, many seemed to be partly at ease with either. In some sense both are languages which allow for a change in laws, but they bring with them a very different political and educational context, to wit: Are the rights of individuals as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights immutable or not?
To end the second part of the sessions, the participants had decided to focus on the media: both on their consumption habits as well as on their critique. Journalists in the committee shared their experience as being targeted for opinions they had expressed publicly, or they told of ways in which “facts” were often not checked well-enough before being reported, and how cross-reporting of only allegedly true or even misconstrued stories suddenly made them sound plausible when “respectable” media picked them up. The participants shared their own perception of how to consume media responsibly: Find different sources, beware of headlines, be critical of quoted testimonies (especially when anonymous), know your journalists and news outlets, etc.
The third part of the committee sessions was also the last session. It was one of the more quiet hours we spent together; reflecting on what had happened, how we as a group and individuals had moved through these discussions and days. Quite a few of the underlying tensions came to the fore when individuals shared their own fears from the beginning of the week, but it also became apparent that the group had achieved a modicum of peace and trust. We hadn’t solved the world’s issues, but we had also not set out to do so. Rather, we had set out to further our own understanding of the other, and that is what we had achieved: A better understanding of the societies we all come from, of the challenges we face, the ways in which we make sense of our own worlds. We also understood that finding politically viable solutions is more difficult than just understanding the other’s position, but without such an understanding any attempt is sure to fail. Though it was an important step, this was just the first one.
Chair of MJC 2016 Power, Politics and Human Rights Committee