The New Republic has just published a major piece on Human Rights Watch and their deeply disturbed relationship to Israel. Its a case study of demopaths and dupes, human rights complex, masochistic omnipotence syndrome, and the left-jihadi alliance. Below, a few choice passages.
Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel.
Benjamin Birnbaum April 27, 2010 | 12:00 am
With Palestinian suicide bombings reaching a crescendo in early 2002, precipitating a full-scale Israeli counterterrorist campaign across the West Bank, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division (MENA) issued two reports (and myriad press releases) on Israeli misconduct—including one on the Israel Defense Forces’ assault on terrorist safe havens in the Jenin refugee camp. That report—which, to HRW’s credit, debunked the widespread myth that Israel had carried out a massacre—nevertheless said there was “strong prima facie evidence” that Israel had “committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” irking the country’s supporters, who argued that the IDF had in fact gone to great lengths to spare Palestinian civilians. (The decision not to launch an aerial bombardment of the densely populated area, and to dispatch ground troops into labyrinthine warrens instead, cost 23 Israeli soldiers their lives—crucial context that HRW ignored.) It would take another five months for HRW to release a report on Palestinian suicide bombings—and another five years for it to publish a report addressing the firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza, despite the fact that, by 2003, hundreds had been launched from the territory into Israel. (HRW did issue earlier press releases on both subjects.)
In the years to come, critics would accuse HRW of giving disproportionate attention to Israeli misdeeds. According to HRW’s own count, since 2000, MENA has devoted more reports to abuses by Israel than to abuses by all but two other countries, Iraq and Egypt. That’s more reports than those on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Algeria, and other regional dictatorships. (When HRW includes press releases in its count, Israel ranks fourth on the list.) And, if you count only full reports—as opposed to “briefing papers,” “backgrounders,” and other documents that tend to be shorter, less authoritative, and therefore less influential—the focus on the Jewish state only increases, with Israel either leading or close to leading the tally. There are roughly as many reports on Israel as on Iran, Syria, and Libya combined.
HRW officials acknowledge that a number of factors beyond the enormity of human rights abuses go into deciding how to divide up the organization’s attentions: access to a given country, possibility for redress, and general interest in the topic. “I think we tend to go where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction,” rues one board member. “We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”
[Bernstien and] Edith Everett, a member of both the MENA advisory committee and the HRW board, a former stockbroker, and a philanthropist who has donated millions to aid Druze Arabs in Israel, eventually came to believe that their concerns were falling on deaf ears. For Everett, the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was a turning point. “Participating on the board became most difficult since [that war],” she recalls. While Everett agreed with some of HRW’s critiques—on Israel’s use of cluster munitions, for example—she took issue with many of the organization’s conclusions, including its reporting on human shield use in Lebanon. (In a 2007 report, HRW insisted that Hezbollah fighters did not shield themselves and their weapons among the local civilian population on a widespread basis.) For a long time, Everett had felt there was a healthy exchange about these issues inside HRW, but that had begun to change. “I felt in recent times there was less of a dialogue,” she says. “It seemed to me that there was a commitment to a point of view—that Israel’s the bad guy here.”
Robert James—a businessman, World War II veteran, and member of the MENA advisory committee who has been involved with HRW almost since its inception—calls the group “the greatest NGO since the Red Cross,” but argues that it is chronically incapable of introspection. “Bob is bringing this issue up on Israel,” he says. “But Human Rights Watch has a more basic problem. … They cannot take criticism.”
Critics have pointed out that a number of Whitson’s colleagues in MENA—such as Joe Stork, who came to HRW after decades as a leader of the left-wing Middle East Research and Information Project, where he was part of an editorial collective that ran an extremely anti-Israel journal—arrived at the organization with backgrounds in the pro-Palestinian movement. Sid Sheinberg argues that the mere appearance of a biased jury at MENA ill-serves HRW. “Is it smart to have a number of people about which questions can be asked—in either direction?” he says. But, when I asked Whitson about this critique—and, specifically, about a former researcher on Israel who, before starting at HRW, wrote pro-Palestinian dispatches from the West Bank and Gaza describing Israeli soldiers as “protected by arrogance and hatred and a state and an army and the world’s superpower”—she said she didn’t see a problem with this situation. “For people who apply for jobs to be the researcher in Israel-Palestine, it’s probably going to be someone who’s done work on Israel-Palestine with a human rights background,” she explained. “And guess what? People who do work with a human rights background on Israel-Palestine tend to find that there are a lot of Israeli abuses. And they tend to become human rights activists on the issue.” For his part, HRW program director Iain Levine, who oversees the organization’s 16 divisions, acknowledges that people from many divisions—and not just MENA—arrive from “solidarity backgrounds,” but insists that, “when they come to the door of this organization, they park those things behind.”
Whether or not Whitson has done so, she clearly favors a tough approach toward the Jewish state. She has argued that, far from being too harsh toward Israel, HRW is actually too lenient. “[B]elieve me,” she wrote in an e-mail to a MENA advisory committee member, “on israel in particular, we are overly cautious and extremely kid-gloved because of the harassment we endure.” Less definitive—but still arguably revealing—evidence about Whitson’s politics can be found in her opinion of Norman Finkelstein, the activist and avowed Hezbollah supporter who has likened Israel to Nazi Germany. The two became acquainted years ago, and she brought him to HRW to discuss his 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah. (“He had a very mixed reception,” she remembers. “I think people did not find his style particularly persuasive.”) In late 2006, when Finkelstein launched a letter-writing campaign demanding that HRW officials apologize for a press release critical of Palestinian officials (which they eventually did), one HRW observer e-mailed Whitson to share thoughts on Finkelstein’s over-the-top rhetoric. Whitson replied: “I agree w/ u that norm undermines himself and his cause w/ the language he uses, and his anger sometimes gets the better of him and his brilliant mind and generous spirit. I continue to have tremendous respect and admiration for him, because as you probably know, making Israeli abuses the focus of one’s life work is a thankless but courageous task that may well end up leaving all of us quite bitter.”
Bernstein also raised some of his concerns with then-HRW board member Richard Goldstone, who would go on to write the U.N.’s much-maligned report on the Gaza war. There are few more reviled figures in Israel right now than Goldstone, but even he sympathized with Bernstein on certain points, such as the politicized nature of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which, after being created in 2006, had directed its first nine condemnations at Israel. In March 2008, barely a year before he accepted UNHRC’s mandate to investigate the Gaza war, he told Bernstein that he thought the body’s performance had been hopeless and expressed ambivalence as to whether HRW should continue appearing before it.
He also agreed with Bernstein that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s increasingly aggressive anti-Israel rhetoric, in combination with his threatening policies, was an issue worthy of HRW’s attention. Goldstone pushed Roth to address it, but to no avail. (When I asked Roth in a February interview at his office about HRW’s refusal to take a position on Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel, including his famous call for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” Roth quibbled about the way the statement had been translated in the West—“there was a real question as to whether he actually said that”—then told me that it was not HRW’s place to render judgments on such rhetoric: “Let’s assume it is a military threat. We don’t take on governments’ military threats just as we don’t take on aggression, per se. We look at how they behave. So, we wouldn’t condemn a military threat just as we wouldn’t condemn an invasion—we would look at how the government wages the war.” Whitson, who sat in on the interview, offered her two cents: “You know, that statement was also matched by Hillary Clinton saying that the Iranian regime should be destroyed or wiped off the map. Again, so, very similar statements, side by side, close in time.” For his part, Goldstone told TNR that he eventually came around to the view this was not an issue HRW should take up.)
Benjamin Birnbaum is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.
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