Every once in a while one reads an interview that reeks of brown-nosing. Here’s one by Ron Kampeas, who had been sharply critical of HRW for their visit to Saudi Arabia, of the key player here, Sarah Leah Whitson. Fisking and further analysis added throughout.
Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW answers my questions
By Ron Kampeas · August 3, 2009
Sarah Leah Whitson, the senior Human Rights Watch official at the center of the controversy over meetings with potential givers in Saudi Arabia, kindly and conscientiously reached out to me to answer my questions.
She also chided me for not reaching out to her before posting my questions. I had some lame reply about blogging and its immediacy, but she had a point.
In any case, while I still have broader critiques about HRW’s notion of balance — Israel on the one side, the rest of the Middle East on the other — Whitson’s replies directly addressed my questions, and were not in any way evasive.
Here are my questions and her replies (I summarize, but also include direct quotes from our conversation):
* Does/ would HRW solicit funds in Israel?
Whitson first of all made clear these were not fund-raisers in Riyadh (“I wish” was how she put it), but not exactly not fund-raisers: They were friends of HRW making their friends, colleagues and acquaintances aware of its work and mission.
“They are informal dinners hosted by friends and supporters, where they come to ask us questions.”
And yes, there were two similar private events in Tel Aviv recently.
How on earth is this a non-evasive answer? What on earth is “friends of HRW making their friends, colleagues and acquaintances aware of its work and mission” mean? They flew out there – how many? – to shoot the breeze?
How charming of her to jokingly say, “I wish…” What a lovely opening: “And if they had/did offered money, would/did you you accept it?”
* Does/Would it do so through presentations that expose human rights abuses by Palestinian authorities and by Arab governments?
This isn’t the core question. The core question is: “Did you use your anti-Israel agenda to make friends with your Saudi colleagues. Is this a significant part of what you bonded over?
Of course, even here to a less charged question, Whitson’s answer tells us the opposite, with Kampeas seeming not to notice:
It does, because just as the Saudis in Riyadh raised concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, so did Israelis raise concerns about abuses by Hamas, Hezbollah and others in the Arab world.
“The questions tend to be pretty aggressive and critical,” she said.
Questions in Arab capitals tend to be informed by Arab or pro-Arab critics of HRW as overly soft on Israel, and questions in Tel Aviv would be informed by critics there who say NGOs have a bias against Israel. Whitson said interlocutors in Tel Aviv had clearly read critiques of the organization by Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor, and those in Arab capitals were familiar with the criticisms of Norman Finkelstein and Mouin Rabbani.
This is not only evasive, it contradicts the point of the question, which, if I understand it, and if it is to have any “point” at all, seeks to know if HRW spoke of human rights violations by Palestinians and by other Arab governments to their Saudi audience, or were they mostly there to make friends by bashing Israel.
Whitson’s answer is, essentially, no. When we’re in Riad, we’re being asked why we’re not harsher on Israel. It strikes me as highly unlikely that they respond by saying,
Listen, we’re plenty rough on Israel, and in comparison to her, your buddies the Palestinians look awful, not only in their efforts to kill Israeli civilians, but in their treatment of their fellow Palestinians…
But Kampeas seems to be a rube to this shell game.
As for putting Gerald Steinberg, whose critiques are based on empirical work, opposite Norman Finkielstein, whose work shows only the most remoter relationship to empirical reality strikes me as a pretty silly version of the classic cop-out: “if we’re being criticized from both sides, we must be doing something right…”
Of course, apparently, Whitson is a big fan of Finkelstein, whose deranged self-hatred (I’ve seen him in action) is awe-inspiring. Notes David Bernstein of Volokh Conspiracy:
Finkelstein’s view of the Arab-Israel conflict manifests itself is such antics as meeting with Hezbollah officials in southern Lebanon and proclaiming “I think that the Hezbollah represents the hope”. His criticism of pro-Israel American Jews tends to be unusually nasty. Thus, he comments that photos of Jewish writers Cynthia Ozick and Ruth Wisse “might induce nightmares.”. He also recklessly or intentionally indulges in rhetoric of the sort that one normally finds on anti-Semitic hate sites like Stormfront. For example, he writes that American Jewish leaders “resemble stereotypes straight out of [Nazi newspaper] Der Sturmer,” and that American “Jewish elites” have “a mindset of Jewish superiority.”
Whitson’s admiration of Finkelstein has survived the fact that he has harshly attacked Human Rights Watch and Whitson when he has deemed them too hard on Israel’s adversaries, or too soft on Israel. By contrast, Whitson has more than once expressed her disdain for HRW’s pro-Israel critics, as when she recently and baselessly accused some of us of racism). The logical conclusion is that Whitson is in broad agreement with Finkelstein’s extremist anti-Israel views, and therefore forgives his occasional hostile outbursts.
Not just forgives them, she greatly appreciates them for two reasons: 1) she can position herself, as she does here as “in the middle,” and 2) she can complain to her co-workers at HRW who might still have scruples, that they’re not being critical enough on Israel.
Back to Kampeas’ interview:
She added (and I wish she had done this in the presentation I addressed in this blog post) that HRW was the first organization, in 2007, to attempt to expose Hezbollah war crimes against Israeli civilians at a Beirut press conference; Hezbollah-intitiated pressures on the hotel management shut the presser down.
“There’s nobody that has done as detailed an investigation of attacks” on Israel by Hezbollah, “targeting their claims that they don’t target civilians, that they target military facilities.”
Bravo, although that’s something of a no-brainer. What’s the moral genius in pointing out that Hizbullah sought to bomb Israeli civilians and that’s a war crime? Does Whitson draw any conclusions about “freedom of the press” in the vast difference between Hizbullah shutting down her press conference, while the Israelis allow HRW unimpeded access to the MSNM in your expensive Press Conferences as the American Colony Hotel (where you positions are very welcome).
But let’s cut to the real chase. What about a study of how Hizbullah (and Hamas) use their own civilians as human shields, something amply documented in the wake of the Lebanon war 2006, with huge implications for the meaning of events like Kafr Qana and the corruption of the media. Or would that diminish your ability to blame Israel’s promiscuous use of violence for every civilian death?
* We get it: The targets were private citizens.
No we don’t.
We also understand that if one is to make representations about abuses, one does so to offficials: “Government officials are, of course, important interlocutors for our advocacy on Saudi human rights policy.”
But why are they in the same room? Are we to seriously believe that the HRW official told the potential givers, “We need your money to fight your government’s abuses” and then turned to the government officials and said “Nu, nu nu?”
HRW did not control the invitation list in Riyadh, Whitson said. In any case, she said, she did not have a problem with the two government officials who attended: One was the deputy head of the Saudi Arabian human rights commission. It is true that such bodies in the Arab world are filled by government appointees; Whitson says that governments bring them into existence to address concerns raised by HRW and other groups and that — in Jordan and Egypt at least — they have proven their independence with critical, tough reports. She suggested that the jury was still out on the Saudi body, but she saw it as positive that the official wanted to hear about HRW’s concerns.
She would, wouldn’t she? Nothing sinister here. We’re so wonderful, why wouldn’t they be interested?
The official from the religious Shura Council, not a body known for its love of liberties, was a wheelchair-bound physician who had just joined the Shura and whose specific interest was disabled access; Whitson says there is virtually no such access in Saudi Arabia, and the Shura official was interested in introducing such reforms. “There are no disability rights, no disabled facilities in Saudi Arabia,” she said.
Okay, so we have two selling points for HRW that won’t offend Saudi sensibilities: Wheelchair access and trashing Israel… and (maybe) very discrete allusions to the problems that women have.
One issue I did not get around to addressing — because it had to do with broader conceptial notions and not with the specifics of recent events — is the wisdom of raising the “Israel lobby” in meetings in the Arab world, in terms of showing how HRW gets hit by all sides in fulfilling its mission. Maybe another conversation.
Huh? Isn’t that the main point? What do you mean, another conversation. Because this one was so long?
This is not mere oversight. Kampeas had made this specific issue the point of an earlier critical post in which he characterized this behavior as “odious.”
HRW is under fire, essentially, because a senior staffer not only bashed Israel to fund-raise among Saudis, she invoked odious tropes about Jewish power in order to do so…
If anyone doubts that interpretation, listen to Ken Roth, HRW’s executive director, fielding Goldberg’s direct question, “Did your staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization’s opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?”
That’s certainly part of the story. We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn’t a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story–part of that pitch–is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.
Elsewhere, Goldberg calls this “tacky.” That’s polite. The generalized and apriori smearing of any criticism as “lies and deception” and “lies and obfuscation” is worthy, I dunno, of the kind of stand up guy who runs Belarus.
This is tough language. It’s all vanished in this newest interview.
Levy, whom I otherwise like and respect, skates over this by noting that — and yes, it’s true, I got the same emails Levy alludes to — much of the criticism of HRW is fueled by a coalition of unhappy campers who will go to any lengths to delegitimate any criticism of Israel.
Much, but not all, and that does not get Sarah Leah Whitson, the HRW staffer who attended this suspect tea party, off the hook. I’m not sure how the refusal to brook legitimate criticism on one side justifies, well, a refusal to brook legitimate criticism on the other. And Whitson’s willingness to slam the Saudis when there are no Saudis present doesn’t make it better.
So if this (remarkably short, even desultory), interview is supposed to clarify these issues, why is it fobbed off in a final comment? Did Sarah Leah charm Kampeas into ceasing to bark? Maybe.
I personally have to wonder that someone who showed himself as critically astute as he had been in his earlier post on this topic, is won over by answers of such unbearable lightness. Has he been dazzled by hanging with top-level mediacrats, by being in the presence of the in-crowd of the big boys and girls? I know neither Whitson nor Kampeas, so I’m not in a position to do more than raise the question. All I know is, it’s not the content of Whitson’s answers that did this trick.
What we can say, however – and Kampeas’ puff piece offers no disconfirmation to this speculation — is that the sessions in Saudi Arabia almost certainly involved a good deal of “feel good” Israel bashing.
After all, this is Whitson’s stock in trade. As Bernstein points out in a new post, Whitson is a long-standing activist for radical anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian causes, a detail that has been scrubbed from her otherwise “professional” vita available at HRW.
What the official bio doesn’t tell you is that Whitson was an active member of the New York chapter of the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee. She had served on the Steering Committee (source: ADC Times, Apr 30, 2002). When HRW hired her, she was serving a two-year term on the new Board of Directors, which replaced the Steering Committee (Source: ADC Times, Jan. 31, 2004).
The ADC styles itself as a civil rights organization, but like the Jewish organizations on which it is modeled, it also involves itself in Middle East issues, specifically by supporting the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel. Local chapters are often more active on foreign policy issues than is the national organization.
And indeed, the New York chapter generally, and Whitson personally, were active in pro-Palestinian politics. The April 30, 2002, ADC Times. published at the height of the Second Intifada, with buses and restaurants being blown up regularly in Israel, reports:
The crisis in Palestine was the main focus of the New York Chapter’s work over the past two months. This work culminated on April 29 with a meeting for representatives of the ADC with the United Nations Secretary General [Kofi Annan] set up by members of the NY Chapter [and see this press release, noting Whitson's attendance]. ADC Chapter President Nick Khoury and Steering Committee member Sarah Leah Whitson helped organize this meeting…. ADC NY members’ activism to raise awareness of the situation of Palestinians has taken many forms. On March 30, we chartered a bus to DC so that members could participate in the Land Day Rally at Freedom Plaza. [The New York chapter also held a local rally]…. On April 14, ADC NY organized a silent vigil outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral to draw attention to the fact that Palestinian Christians are also suffering under Israeli occupation….
The Jan. 31, 2004 ADC Times , which noted Whitson’s election to the Board of Trustees, reported that the New York chapter “continued our Palestine activism over the summer.”
In other words, HRW hired a virulently anti-Israel political activist as their Middle East region director. As with a number of other such hires, we’re watching a process of laundering the most vicious hate-mongering from the radical “left” — Electric Intifada — to “halo-protected” NGOs like HRW, to the MSNM.
No wonder we’re going crazy. The Augean Stables do not merely stink, their malodiferous emanations are toxic.