Human Rights at the Dinner Table

I Defend Rights, an initiative of the Norwegian Human Rights Fund and Memria, is a growing archive of hundreds of personal accounts from human rights defenders around the world. A common trait shared by many of the narrators is their willingness to engage in difficult discussions with strangers, friends, and family members.

Sahar Vardi, israeli human rights defender.
Sahar Vardi, Rela Mazali, and Alexa Weissman on the difficulties of speaking up about important issues.

The dinner table is no place for politics, or so goes the adage. Certain discussions are avoided among friends and relatives because they threaten to make an otherwise happy gathering uncomfortable and tense. The adage points to our reluctance when it comes to speaking our minds about the most important issues: freedom, the future, our privileges, the rights of the people. One characteristic shared by human rights defenders is their willingness to have those discussions at home, at the dinner table, out in the streets, and everywhere they go.

Sahar Vardi doesn't shy away from these difficult discussions. She is a Jewish-Israeli advocate from Jerusalem. From a young age, she decided to be outspoken about one of the most sensitive issues in her society: the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israeli citizens.

At the age of 15, Vardi refused to be conscripted into the two-year military service mandated by law in Israel. She served three prison sentences for her conscientious objection. Since then, she has worked as an advocate for peace in Israel and has faced all sorts of difficult discussions. Her refusal to serve in the military often raises the suspicion of her compatriots.

Sometimes arguments unfold with strangers. On other occasions, the hardest issues have to be discussed with loved ones. Rela Mazali has worked as an advocate in Israel for four decades. She says one of the biggest challenges of her career has been discussing her ideas with her family.

As a rights defender, Alexa Weissman has encountered these difficult discussions. Some of her friends and acquaintances don’t share her views about issues like reproductive rights, access to healthcare, or income inequality.

The defense of human rights is sometimes a dangerous job done by advocates in war-torn countries. Although these places do need brave citizens that speak truth to power, human rights can be defended everywhere. It just takes ordinary citizens who are willing to engage in difficult discussions with friends and family. The dinner table can be a place for careful and innocuous conversation or a space for the defense of human rights.

Sahar Vardi has worked on a variety of efforts against militarization and human rights violations in Israel. She works as the coordinator of the east Jerusalem program of the American Friends Service Committee.

Rela Mazali is an Israeli scholar and peace activist. She co-founded New Profile, a group of feminist advocates that work to demilitarize the Israeli state.

The goal of I Defend Rights is to support human rights defenders by recording and sharing audio accounts narrated by them. We believe that, by doing so, we can ultimately help human rights defenders be safer and more successful in their work. If you want to listen to other stories or you defend rights and want to share your experiences, click here.