Peninsula native helps set bar for human rights in Israel

She’s traveled around the world working on human rights issues and trains international human rights attorneys in Washington, D.C. She’s also part of an interfaith marriage, and is raising her kids to speak five languages.

For Hadar Harris, it’s all part of a lifelong effort to help change the world.

As executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, Harris finds herself involved in a wide range of activism.

Having grown up on the Peninsula, Harris was back in the Bay Area late last month to talk about the program she runs at AU, which focuses on training legal practitioners in human rights issues. She also collaborates with the New Israel Fund to bring Israeli attorneys — usually one Jewish and one Palestinian per year — overseas to study at the Washington, D.C., school.

“It has really led to the development of the human rights bar in Israel,” says Harris, noting that most of the human rights attorneys in Israel have come through the program. The fellows go through courses and internships at American and then are funded to work back in Israel during the second year of the fellowship.

Harris worked in Jerusalem in the late ’90s as director of program and resource development for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. Prominent issues included equality for Arab citizens of Israel and instituting civil marriages in Israel.

“Still, to this day, you cannot have a civil marriage in Israel. It also means you can’t cross-marry — that’s why everybody goes to Cyprus to get married,” says Harris, whose own 2006 marriage to Moroccan human rights advocate Rahim Sabir would not have been allowed to be performed in Israel (it took place in Chevy Chase, Md.)

Harris said her two children will grow up firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition but will also know about their Moroccan heritage. The boys are currently being exposed to English, Hebrew, Arabic, French and Spanish.

Despite an extremely busy schedule, Harris was pleased to return to the Bay Area to address volunteers and eighth-graders at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School’s annual volunteer breakfast in Palo Alto — and to visit her parents, who live in Hillsborough.

“I was really thrilled when [the school] called and asked me to come out and speak to their community and give them the sense that it is possible to impact Israeli human rights issues,” she says. (Her mother, Ruthellen, is the former development director at Hausner.)

Harris continues to pursue international human rights endeavors, but laments that her attention must all too frequently turn to domestic issues.

For example, her work often focuses on American policies on torture, treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay, violations by U.S. military and private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, police brutality and homelessness.

“These days you cannot be an international human rights attorney from the U.S. without working on human rights issues in the U.S.,” she adds.

Harris takes a similar perspective on Israel in regard to human rights in the West Bank and Gaza.

“I am a supporter of Israel, but when Israel makes mistakes I think it’s important to recognize that and challenge them to do better. I feel Israel needs to be held to the same standards as other countries are.”

She has worked on human rights treaties in Armenia, Macedonia, Israel and domestically — and says most people would be surprised to learn that the United States has ratified only three of eight major international human rights treaties. “We and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the treaty on children’s rights,” she notes.

As to why the U.S. is lagging in treaty ratification, Harris points out that it might have something to do with Uncle Sam’s aversion to being monitored. “When you ratify a human rights treaty, you obligate yourself to report to an oversight committee,” she says.

Harris spends most of her time in Washington, but looks forward to the time when her boys are old enough for her to go back into the international field. As for the future of Israeli politics, Harris says one must continue to hope for peace.

“It’s unfortunate that every time a step goes forward, the prime minister gets indicted,” she says, referring to the controversy surrounding Ehud Olmert.

“But you don’t know, because sometimes in an atmosphere like this, the whole thing can fall apart or a breakthrough can happen. And that’s part of the craziness of Israeli politics. So you hope for the breakthrough.”