Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Separating Human Rights from Politics in the Holy Land

Words by Jan Lee

Human rights has been a compelling issue in the Middle East for centuries, and no political situation underscores that more than the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Populations on both sides of the Green Line (the demarcation that separates the state of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza) have their share of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. These economic factors have grown worse, not better, in the past decades.

One Catholic priest wants to help improve the odds for the poorest that live on both sides of the Green Line. Father Sean McManus, best known for his success in helping to reshape the way that U.S. companies did business in Northern Ireland during its civil war in the 1980s, believes a similar strategy can work in the Middle East -- specifically, in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The Holy Land Principles

The Holy Land Principles (HLP) are eight fairly succinct guideposts for companies planning to do business in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. While they have neither legislative nor legal power, they have a compelling voice where it often counts: with the shareholders. Their purpose, says the organization's website, is to "ensure that American dollars do not support discrimination, human rights abuses or violations of international law in the Holy Land (which it describes as "Israel/Palestine," as well as Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem).

All of the principles are the kind of things we'd like to see in corporate America. In fact, they are meant to reflect the very virtues that American consumers have said they believe in: fair hiring principles and no discrimination in layoff, recall or termination. The principles also reject any kind of corporate endorsement of military service unless the job responsibilities specifically require such training.

This last point is an interesting addition, since Israel is one of few countries in the world that require conscription by almost all citizens -- men and women, secular and devout. The only sector of the population it doesn't apply to as a whole is the Arab citizenry, who are exempt but have been known to volunteer in the military as Israeli citizens.

Holy Land Principles 'enhance America's security'

According to the website, the principles are not a means to support divestment, disinvestment or reverse discrimination, better known as the "BDS" concepts that have been used to wield influence against companies that do business in the Palestinian Territories and, in some cases, in Israel.

On the other hand, argues the organization, "corporations will enhance America’s security" by sending the message to populations in the region that America stands for fair and ethical business principles.

But in truth, the Holy Land Principles probably won't resonate with all corporations or their shareholders with investments in the region. To date, Fr. McManus' doctrine has received relatively little endorsement from American companies. As of this writing, only one company has endorsed the principles.

Setting ethical boundaries in foreign countries

If there is anything that corporate America has learned (and painfully at times) about overseas investment, it is that American values aren't always understood, interpreted or endorsed by foreign cultures the way we think they should be. Arriving in a foreign country with a set list of dos and don'ts, including preconceived limitations on funding that may be not only acceptable but legally expected, may put corporations at a disadvantage when seeking licenses and investment opportunities.

But the McManus principles also have some unsaid social parameters that aren't evident until one examines the supporting documentation -- all of which are published by outside agencies or writers. And it is there that many companies may have found some points of discomfort.

The principles don't protect everyone

Although none of the principles mention it, the supporting documents (and the website's about page) assume that Arab and Christian workers need protections that Jewish and other ethnic workers don't. All workers are at risk of discriminatory behavior. Developing a standard whose language and supporting sources address that carries the strongest message.

Unclear geographic boundaries

Despite the fact that the report aims to address human rights in three distinct regions, the majority of the documentation HLP uses to make its case focuses on working inequities in Israel. At the same time, little reference is made to conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, where wages are lower and employment protections are either less or nonexistent. Several of the sources it uses do not recognize Israeli-governed areas that were established under the Oslo Accords.

Israeli census and culture are complex

"[Almost] 40 percent of the families in Israel that live under the poverty line are Arab families," notes the report, Arab Citizens of Israel at Work. As in most countries, demographics and cultural traditions often have a play in employment statistics. While the number of Jewish poor is not as large, the overall number of Israeli poor suggests that there is more to the story than discrimination or class. By some sources, 1 in 5 Israelis are below the poverty line. By others, 1 in 3 are impoverished. And one of the largest sectors of Jews under the poverty line comprises Israel's most religious Jews. The demand for Israeli, nonprofit soup kitchens and homeless assistance for all populations has ballooned in recent years.

"More and more Israelis are working, and staying poor regardless," notes the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.

Human rights or politics?

The HLP has some laudable humanitarian aims. But are the goals of the authors it cites in the supporting documents the same?

The language used by some of the sources that HLP cites in reference to Israel give the unfortunate impression that politics, not global principles of human rights, are at the core of problems in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. References to "the Zionist state of Israel," Israeli "occupation," and the tenor and political focus of material written by some of the supporting sources can undermine the HLP's goals to ensure human rights are applied regionally, not just politically.

Israel, Israel/Palestine or Isreal?

Unfortunately, spelling and historical attribution matter, particularly when it comes to wooing the ethical support of companies and business leaders in a region that is divided by political differences. Referring to the geographic area as the Holy Land makes sense, since it is, in fact, a sacred land for many cultures. But recognizing Israel by its legally accorded name (not Israel/Palestine, or Isreal[sic] as the links to the supporting documents state) is just as necessary as recognizing the existence of the West Bank and Gaza.

Lastly, some of the greatest strides in ensuring fair pay, benefits and protections for Arab workers continue to go unrecognized. Recent steps taken by businesses owned by Israeli Jewish entrepreneurs or jointly owned or operated by Jews and Arabs, have helped to set benchmarks for not only better pay for the people HLP cites, but also for improving relations between communities and cultures. Manufacturing companies, agricultural groups, architectural firms, research facilities, museums, educational institutes focused on sustainable living, hospitals and other businesses have taken ownership of these societal goals -- and on both sides of the Green Line. None of these businesses has been cited as an example advancing human rights.

Annual shareholder meetings

In the coming weeks, the Holy Land Principles will be up for vote at the annual shareholder meetings of two major U.S. companies. Both operate businesses in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank: Corning (April 29) and Intel (May 21). It will be interesting to see the outcome.  According to Fr. McManus, General Electric (which held its annual meeting this weekend) and Corning previously appealed to the Securities and Exchange Commission to exclude the HLP resolutions, and the appeals were rejected. No explanation was given for their appeals, but they may mean that the HLP will have an upward battle promoting the standards at this time.

No two countries are the same, and no two political conflicts present the same set of challenges for foreign investors. But language can carry just as powerful a message as the humanitarian goals being put forth. Ethical standards that call for the rights of all workers and cultures, not just those of a minority, ensure fair and transparent treatment for all. And while the standards are attracting the attention of foreign investors, they are also sending a global message that human rights is a global entitlement that should never need to be justified.

Image of Arab children: Justin MacIntosh

Image of residents at soup kitchen: Government Press Office, Israel

Image of 1947 rally of Jewish and Arab farm workers: GPO

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee

More stories from Leadership & Transparency