He said, she said: Israel vs. HRW on Saudi Arabia and Gaza

One of the more frustrating aspects of reading news articles (and even more, in watching news broadcasts) is how little follow-up there is. This article is quite meaty for the back and forth it gives.

Gov’t strikes back against ‘biased’ human rights NGOs

Jul. 15, 2009

In the opening shot of a battle Jerusalem has decided to wage with NGOs it deems biased against Israel, the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday slammed a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) fundraising delegation to Saudi Arabia as evidence the organization has lost its “moral compass.”

“A human rights organization raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women’s rights group asking the Taliban for a donation,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said Monday.

“If you can fundraise in Saudi Arabia, why not move on to Somalia, Libya and North Korea?” he said. “For an organization that claims to offer moral direction, it appears that Human Rights Watch has seriously lost its moral compass.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, responded by telling The Jerusalem Post that there was a need to distinguish between a government and its people, and to conflate the two was “misguided at best.”

“Certainly not everyone is tainted by the misconduct of their government,” she said, stressing that her organization did not take money from any governments around the world, but did solicit funds from individuals and foundations worldwide.

“There are private individuals in Saudi Arabia who are not part of the ruling government,” she said.

This is exceptionally naive, and raises the question who’s being taken for the fool here? Whitson? Or the people she’s addressing? The idea that Saudi mistreatment of their women, or foreign workers, or their own commoners, or imported slaves, is just a matter of government, beggars the imagination. This is a cultural matter that goes so deep — especially among the wealthy elite — that I defy Whitson to come up with one wealthy Saudi who is not riddled with the kinds of prejudices that HRW allegedly battles all over the world.

Regev’s comments came two weeks after Israel was ripped for alleged misconduct during Operation Cast Lead in reports issued by HRW and Amnesty International, two of the highest-profile human rights NGOs. Israel has decided to take a much more aggressive stance toward future reports issued by these organizations, the Post has learned.

About time.

“We will make a greater effort in the future to go through their reports with a fine-tooth comb, expose the inconsistencies and their problematic use of questionable data,” one senior official said.

“We discovered during the Gaza operation and the Second Lebanon War that these organizations come in with a very strong agenda, and because they claim to have some kind of halo around them, they receive a status that they don’t deserve,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry is currently considering how best to expand its focus and deal more systematically with this issue, and it is assumed this will be done together with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Post has learned.

At a press conference last week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Foreign Ministry was currently involved in a reform that would place a much greater emphasis on dealing with NGOs, which Lieberman said were replacing diplomats as the engine for setting the international community’s agenda.

Regev’s comments on HRW were triggered by an op-ed that appeared Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal‘s online edition, reporting that a delegation from the organization recently visited Saudi Arabia to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting the group’s activities against Israel.

This op-ed, written by David Bernstein – a law professor at Virginia’s George Mason University – was based on a report issued by NGO Monitor two months ago, which itself was based on an article on the visit that appeared in the Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News.

According to the Arab News story from May, a delegation of senior members of HRW were in Saudi Arabia and commended at a dinner attended by prominent members of Saudi society, human rights activists and dignitaries for work on Gaza and the Middle East as a whole.

Yes, and I’m sure there were women there without veils who drove on their own.

According to the report, HRW presented a documentary and spoke on the report they had compiled “on Israel violating human rights and international law” during the Gaza operation.

“Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets. Pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations have strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it,” Whitson was quoted in the paper as saying.

So they’re taking their agenda-driven, deeply doubtful work and selling it to an eager audience of hate-mongerers in Saudi Arabia. And their probably congratulating themselves on contributing to peace.

Whitson, according to the Arab News report, pointed out that the group had managed to testify about Israeli abuses to the US Congress on three occasions.

“US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel and the Hamas authorities in Gaza to cooperate with the United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate the allegations of serious Israeli violations during the war on Gaza,” she was quoted as saying.

Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which monitors humanitarian NGOs working in or compiling reports about Israel, called Saudi Arabia one of the world’s greatest human rights violators and said that for a human rights organization to go there looking for funds was “grossly immoral.”

Steinberg said that HRW had turned to the Arab world for funds since some of its major Jewish donors had stopped contributing to the organization because of its stance on Israel.

He added that it was disingenuous for Whitson to say the organization was soliciting individuals in Saudi Arabia, not the government, since the wealth that the organization was soliciting in Saudi Arabia “can only be part of the Saudi elite,” and the elite were an integral part of a regime and system notorious for human rights violations.

Good point.

Whitson slammed both NGO Monitor and Bernstein for not calling her to check their facts, and said that if they had done so they would have been informed that – contrary to the impressions left by their reports – HRW did discuss Saudi human rights violations during the delegation’s visit.

And just what did they say? I’m reading an excellent book now on Free Speech in Athenian Democracy, and one of the points that the ancient Greeks insisted on was how material interests — in particular indebtedness — made it hard for people to speak frankly. One wonders just how far HRW permitted itself to criticize its hosts, given the purpose of the trip.

She dismissed NGO Monitor as a “propaganda organization.”

What’s the meaning of that? How does she not consider herself a “propaganda organization”? And how does she deal with the substantive issues in NGO Monitor’s critiques of her organization? Projection? Cheap shot, for sure.

Steinberg said that e-mail queries his organization had left with Whitson and HRW executive-director Kenneth Roth on the matter had gone unanswered.

Probably because, until it became news, they felt perfectly secure ignoring queries. Shades of Enderlin.

Whitson dismissed the impression left in the Arab News report that the organization’s sales pitch in Saudi Arabia had been based on its work slamming Israel, saying there was Saudi press censorship, and it was clear that HRW’s work in Gaza was the angle that the authorities in Riyadh would want to highlight.

And, of course, the HRW fundraisers paid no attention to Saudi preferences.

Whitson said that while in Saudi Arabia, HRW had met with the government’s human rights commission and had private dinners, “just as we have private dinners in Tel Aviv, London and New Delhi.”

She said the group had Saudi donors, but – citing her organization’s policy – would not identify them or say how much money had been raised on the recent visit to the Saudi kingdom.

If you think this will make a fraction of a difference in protecting women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — in comparison, say, with their protection in Israel — you really are (at best) naive.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Goldberg publishes his email exchange with Kenneth Roth of HRW. (HT NP and oao)

Fundraising Corruption at Human Rights Watch

I’ll post more on this exchange later, but in the meantime, let me note that it is extremely revealing of Roth’s mindset, not only about what he does — he’s clean in his mind — but what his opponents do — lie and deceive. It reminds me of that us-them honor-shame mentality in which whatever I do is okay, whatever “they” do is horrible.

Watch NGO Monitor for a meaty response.

21 Responses to He said, she said: Israel vs. HRW on Saudi Arabia and Gaza

  1. Stuart Green says:


    Don’t hold your breath. Whitson falls into the “universalist” camp–the one that believes all humans are fundamentally similar, have the same basic value set, want the same things, etc. That’s why it’s okay for her to seek funding amongst the Saudi (“Well, if they’re anti-Israel they have the same values as us!”)

    This universalistic cognitive egocentrism will, of course, remain firmly rooted and unassailed by the facts. Addressing the truth about Saudi culture would be unbearable and thus create an overpowering state of cognitive dissonance. Just imagine how hard it would be to realize that your entire activist career should have been inverted, i.e. targeting Saudi Arabia with support from Israel rather than the reverse. Yes, it is much more comfortable to simply continue as we have been going…

  2. Ray in Seattle says:

    For me, the take-home is that the gov is Israel is becoming pro-active in defending itself against groups like this. They’ve pretty much ignored these groups in the past, giving them free reign to establish a framework of defamation against Israel.

    This is hopeful. No matter the details, this sends the message that Israel considers itself a moral state and is offended when someone questions that morality. Now, when AI or HRW publishes some report, instead of expecting silence from Israel, people will more likely suspend judgment expecting Israel’s response.

    This is not just good politics for Israel. It makes the question of morality in war itself more important and will shed light on Israel’s consistently laudable efforts to save civilian lives in war.

    I just hope Israel is setting up a similar office to deal with bogus news articles and agenda-driven reporting. That’s even more important IMO.

  3. Ray in Seattle says:

    Hi Stu. Good to see your comments here. Hope to see more of that!

  4. Steve in Brookline says:

    Finally HRW has revealed it’s true black colors. The question is whether the MSM picks upon this naked exploitation of Jew hatred to further HRW’s finances. Should that happen it would finally put a lid on their credibility. I’m not holding my breath on this one.

  5. Diane says:

    Nice that the Israeli govt is looking into NGO misconduct at last. The problem I see here is that the only reason we know about this unseemly junket was, as HRW’s Whitson points out, thanks to censored Saudi media. It will be easy to put a gag order on reporting about any future NGO fundraising trips to the Kingdom.

    Do NGOs put out annual reports and what level of transparency are they subject to? This report says they keep the identity of donors confidential. Seems like a very bad idea to me.

  6. oao says:

    too little too late.

    israel has decided to address this when the whole world is already against israel and the chance of having any effect in changing minds is practically zero.

    the strategic mistakes israel has made are many and their consequences enormous.

    1. from day one it has not established the jewish refugees from day one as a bargain against the arab ones.

    2. it did not fight wars to win

    3. oslo

    in the frame of things the ngo’s are peanuts next to these, and with taking them on and without won’t make a dent.

  7. oao says:

    there has often been discussion here about whether western behaviors such as this are a result of malice or ignorance.

    i claim that if there is malice, it is a result of a certain type of ignorance. i very much doubt that the likes of whitson REALLY COMPREHENDS life and culture in saudi arabia. very few people in the west do. they may know some facts but that does not mean they comprehend them.

    and whatever malice is there towards israel, it is rooted in inability to draw a true comparison between it and saudia.

    what these people are doing is convincing themselves that in their abstract strive to fight for human rights they must get funds where they are available, rich arabs, and that the goal is worth the means.

    it’s almost like american jews putting liberalism and dhimmicrats first over israel. pretty common.

  8. oao says:

    the indebtness and rationalizations follow like clockwork from that. desrshowitz’s response on obama is similar to whitson’s when challenged.

  9. oao says:

    do you think whitstone and the feminists have anything to say about this?

    Too sexy for prison: Officer claims she was hounded out after inmates paid her compliments

    sharia law is already in effect in EU.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    Here’s a sincerity test for whitson and roth. Whitson says the following, insinuating that she may have harshly criticized Saudi anti-human rights policies while in the kingdom.

    Whitson dismissed the impression left in the Arab News report that the organization’s sales pitch in Saudi Arabia had been based on its work slamming Israel, saying there was Saudi press censorship, and it was clear that HRW’s work in Gaza was the angle that the authorities in Riyadh would want to highlight.
    Most of this sentence is true enough and I agree that the Riyadh govt would want to highlight critiques of Israel. But, if she did criticize Saudi practices and policies, and such criticism was omitted from the Arab News report, then why did she not make it forcefully clear once she had returned to the USA that she strongly disapproved of the ban on religious worship other than Muslim worship in Saudi Arabia [isn’t this an HR issue?] and she disapproved of the severe limits on women’s freedom, and cruel treatment of foreign workers, especially, but not only, non-Muslims, etc???
    Since she did not make such a critical attitude towards Saudi practices clear once she had come back to the US [as far as I know], one must assume that she had little if anything to say about these matters while in the kingdom. Hence, her insinuation about omissions in the Arab News Report was meant to mislead, that is, to lie.

    I would go further. Why do we hear so much about HRW “reports” and “critiques” of Israeli policy in the media but so little, if any, about “reports” and critiques of Arab regimes practices, including those of Saudi Arabia, which is near an extreme even within the Arab world?? Then, in the course of criticizing alleged Israeli violations in Gaza, has hrw ever discussed the anti-human rights implications of the Hamas charter [inc. Article 7] which now governs Gaza??

    RL sarcastically remarks, “And, of course, the HRW fundraisers paid no attention to Saudi preferences.” Obviously. Further, making a funds appeal to the Saudis on the grounds of HRW’s leading role in anti-Israel propaganda or, if you like, “information” warfare or agitprop or perhaps “public spirited, disinterested, testimony to Congress based purely on principled concerns, already shows a bias on hrw’s part. That is, stressing anti-Israel efforts to Saudi donors implies that hrw has taken sides.

    One of the problems here is that the US MSM are already in the pockets of the anti-Israel, pro-Arab forces in the establishment.

    By the way, while we’re on the subject of HR policies by Arabs govts, what about genocide going on in the Sudan since independence in 1956?

  11. Cynic says:

    The biggest misnomer in NGO – Non Governmental Organisation.

    What non-governmental is there in an organisation that gets part of its budget from governments?

    Non-governmental organization
    In the cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status therefore it excludes government representatives from membership in the organization.

    but because of the strings attached the whole thing is a farce.

    And the NGOs associated with the UN?

  12. oao says:

    but because of the strings attached the whole thing is a farce.

    almost everything in the west is a farce today. complete with comedians elected to the senate and society-transforming legislation written by lobbyists which nobody bothers to even read before voting on it.

  13. oao says:

    Whitson says the following, insinuating that she may have harshly criticized Saudi anti-human rights policies while in the kingdom.

    anybody who believes that a fund-raiser will be harsh to the source of funds must have his head examined. funny that her org has been harsh to the saudis only in private, when asking for funds, and not very often in public when it was not.

  14. […] Monitor has just posted a further discussion of the HRW Saudi-Arabia fund-raising junket scandal. Part of what the dispute reveals is the very tenuous hold that HRW has on empirical reality, and […]

  15. Eliyahu says:

    continuing from my #12:

    the Hamas charter is clearly a pro-genocide document. This is very clear in Article 7, which quotes a medieval Muslim Hadith fable foretelling the genocide of the Jews at Judgement Day, a genocide to be performed by Muslims. The loyal Muslim, reading that fable, might logically ask, Why wait till Judgement Day. Now, if HRW still considers genocide an offense against HR, if it ever did, then Hamas’s pro-genocide position ought to be taken into account in any treatment of the Gaza War of January 2009. In other words, Hamas is a political/religious body that is blatantly opposed to human rights. The Gaza War has to be seen in that light.

    Since HR are supposed to be universal, then opposing Jews’ HR means opposing HR as such. Also, supporting Hamas means opposing Jews’ HR. This applies to HRW’s wealthy Saudi donors too, obviously. Now, we come to another point, which no doubt bothers many critics of HRW. Was hrw’s ostensible concern for “civilians” in Gaza merely a pretext for supporting Hamas’ war against Israel, Hamas’ genocidal war on Israel??? No doubt, this belief caused some previous hrw donors to stop funding the fake HR body. I have not closely examined hrw’s indictment of Israel regarding that war. However, if hrw accepted false claims made by Hamas and other Arab interested parties that members of the Hamas armed forces [inc. the Hamas Gaza police] were “civilians”, then hrw not only lacks credibility but is consciously supporting Hamas’ genocidal efforts. This is because various sources identified persons claimed by name by Hamas and other Arab sources as civilians as being in fact Hamas policemen or members of other Hamas armed forces. Hamas had even claimed that commanders of its armed forces that had been killed were civilians. Since such claims by Hamas were belied, then hrw is taking the Hamas side by accepting its claims.

    Next, what are the human rights bona fides of hrw’s Saudi donors? Are they supporters in good faith of human rights in Saudi Arabia while living in luxury in their palaces in Riyahdh, with their servants, foreign and domestic –or slaves, dare we ask?? Do these people accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN, for example??? Or do they adhere to the Cairo Declaration of human rights in Islam, which is a clearly anti-hr manifesto??? More particularly, do these donors accept the traditional Islamic doctrine that Jews are not only kufar [unbelievers] but the worst of unbelievers?? That Jews are destined to be humiliated by Muslims, slaughtered at Judgement Day, etc?? Do they agree with the endorsement of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Hamas charter??

    In short, I would like to see proof in both word and deed that the Saudi donors of hrw are supporters of human rights as such, and not merely cleverly using HR against Jews and Israel. Until Whitson and Roth supply convincing indications about the hr commitment of their Saudi donors, then whitson, roth and hrw should be considered human rights fakers.

  16. Ray in Seattle says:

    Eliyahu, all good points in #19. I would think that if HRW was actually more interested in human rights than in selling their anti-Israel platform to the highest bidder, they would have a formal written donor statement spelling out their human rights concerns and position – and they would require every private donor above some minimum donation to sign it indicating their agreement with those principles. That they have not done this AFAIK says a lot about their real agenda.

  17. Ray in Seattle says:

    Re: Israel / IDF behavior during Operation Cast Lead. I just read a very good analysis of the morality of war in the context of the recent Gaza war by an Israeli scholar. It’s a complex topic but Asa Kasher explains it very well. One of the best I’ve read. It’s at:


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