Founder and former Chairman of HRW, Robert Bernstein: “I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics”
In the first part of my documentation of the bias of Human Rights Watch, I focused on HRW’s “Israel and Palestine Country Director” Omar Shakir.
I demonstrated that, given his long record of anti-Israel activism, it is laughable for HRW to insist that Shakir would be able or even willing to impartially monitor Israel’s human rights record.
Indeed, HRW is playing a cynical game by demanding that Israel grant Shakir a work permit, because what they are essentially saying is: we hired a veteran anti-Israel activist and are paying him to continue his efforts to rid the world of its only Jewish state, and we insist that for the sake of “human rights,” Israel must host him.
Since HRW is a well-funded and influential NGO that enjoys near-immunity from media criticism, it is all the more important to realize that Shakir’s case should serve as a reminder of HRW’s institutional bias against Israel.
As I will document in this second part, this bias was widely criticized a decade ago, and it is not only Shakir’s case that illustrates that this criticism remains valid. Top HRW officials like well-paid veteran executive director Ken Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson of the Middle East and North Africa Division are almost eager to openly display their pronounced bias against Israel. Their conduct reflects HRW’s adoption of an anti-Zionist agenda almost two decades ago.
“Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast”
Ten years ago, in October 2009, Robert L. Bernstein, the founder and longtime chairman of HRW, took to the pages of the New York Times (NYT) to make a shocking announcement:
“I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics. Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
A decade after its publication, Bernstein’s article under the title “Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast” remains a depressing must-read that could have been written just last week, because nothing has changed for the better at HRW or, for that matter, in the Middle East.
As Bernstein noted:
“Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.”
Bernstein concluded with a warning:
“Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.”
The business of bashing Israel
But ten years on it seems clear that Bernstein was wrong to think that bashing the world’s only Jewish state would damage the influence and credibility of HRW.
Indeed, just a few months before Bernstein wrote his op-ed, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, set out to prove that boasting about HRW’s hostility to Israel could pay handsomely: she traveled to Saudi Arabia to raise money, enticing potential donors by—as Jeffrey Goldberg found out from HRW top official Ken Roth—“highlighting her organization’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s ‘supporters,’” who, according to HRW, “are liars and deceivers.”
Like Bernstein, Goldberg felt that this would negatively impact the credibility of HRW. But as the UN has demonstrated for decades, bashing Israel can be done without fear of negative consequences, because ganging up on the Jew of the nations is rather popular. Indeed, HRW might well have been inspired by the example of the UN, where the “Infrastructure of Hate” that was put in place to maximize the impact of the pernicious UN resolution that condemned Zionism as racism has remained fully funded and functional despite the repeal of the resolution in 1991.
In any case, Jeffrey Goldberg’s assumption that HRW might have damaged its reputation by fundraising so shamelessly in Saudi Arabia was quickly proven wrong. Not long after this incident, and shortly before HRW founder Bernstein would criticize his organization in the pages of the NYT, HRW announced that they had been promised a challenge grant of $100 million over 10 years from George Soros, who praised HRW as “one of the most effective organizations I support.”
However, it is noteworthy that one British report on the grant provides a glimpse of the concern that HRW’s obsession with Israel had apparently been causing for quite some time. The report noted that already at the beginning of 2010, HRW program director Ian Levine had met Jewish communal leaders in London “in an effort to convince them that the organisation was not biased against Israel.”
“Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit”
A well-reported piece that described Bernstein’s NYT article as a “bombshell” and investigated the developments that led the HRW founder to publicly criticize his organization also noted in early 2010 that “American Jews and other supporters of Israel” had long felt that HRW “was biased against the Jewish state.”
According to this report, there was also a lingering internal controversy and “Bernstein’s op-ed was the culmination of a long struggle inside the organization that had turned increasingly acrimonious over the years. The debate revolved around a single question: Was the world’s most respected human rights group being fair to Israel? Bob Bernstein wasn’t the only person at Human Rights Watch who thought the answer was no.”
It’s fairly easy to show that critics who accused HRW “of giving disproportionate attention” to real or imagined “Israeli misdeeds” were right: between 2000 and early 2010—which includes the years of the murderous Al-Aqsa Intifada and the take-over of Gaza by Hamas—HRW issued more reports on alleged abuses by Israel than on “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.”
And at least back then, it seems that some HRW officials were willing to acknowledge that it wasn’t necessarily “the enormity of human rights abuses” that prompted them to issue condemnations. As one HRW board member put it: “I think we tend to go where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction … We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”
The little effort required to pick the “low-hanging fruit” of the world’s only Jewish state was also exposed when NGO Monitor published a comprehensive study that systematically analyzed the output of HRW on the Arab-Israeli conflict from 2001 through the middle of 2009.
The investigation showed “a consistent pattern of ideological bias, lack of professional qualifications, and unsupported claims based on faulty evidence and analysis on the part of HRW.” Yet, HRW could always rely “on its ‘halo effect’” that made it unseemly to question the organization’s supposed “expertise, morality, and objectivity” and guaranteed that its claims were uncritically “replicated by governments and international organizations, including the United Nations.”
HRW votes for anti-Zionism against peace
Anyone who might be inclined to distrust NGO Monitor’s conclusion that HRW showed “a consistent pattern of ideological bias” against Israel should take into account that the perhaps most fascinating, and arguably most depressing, aspect of the internal controversy that led to Bernstein’s public criticism of HRW was that it could be traced back to September 2000, when “Bill Clinton was trying desperately to broker a peace agreement between Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak.”
It’s worthwhile recalling that back then, there was overwhelming international support for the effort to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and Ehud Barak’s landslide victory against Netanyahu in May 1999 was a clear signal that a majority of Israelis were willing to give peace a chance.
But HRW was not. Shockingly, in September 2000, the board of HRW decided to do its part to sabotage the chances for a peace agreement by voting to endorse Palestinian demands for a “right to return”—which of course would mean transforming the world’s only Jewish state into yet another Arab-Muslim majority state.
Reportedly, at the end of the year, “Ken Roth, HRW’s executive director, would send letters to Clinton, Arafat, and Barak urging them to accept the organization’s position. The right of return, he wrote, ‘is a right that persists even when sovereignty over the territory is contested or has changed hands’.” In other words, HRW made sure that the Palestinian leadership knew that they had the full backing of HRW for their rejection of a peace agreement that envisioned two states for two peoples.
If you read the first part of this documentation, you may recall that on May 15, 2017, Omar Shakir marked “Nakba Day,” i.e. what the Palestinians see as the “catastrophe” of Israel’s re-establishment. When Shakir asserted that “Palestinian refugees maintain right of return” and that HRW considers it a “binding right” guaranteed by international law, he just repeated the rejectionist anti-Zionism that HRW adopted as its policy when peace seemed possible almost 20 years ago.
Sarah Leah Whitson and the “bluster of Hamas”
Sarah Leah Whitson has been the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division of HRW since 2004, and she has reportedly been “frequently” involved in disputes over Israel inside HRW. As one of her colleagues put it politely, she seems to “have a lot of personal identification with the Palestinian cause,” and one might add that she doesn’t make the slightest effort to pretend otherwise.
One astonishing example is an article she wrote two years ago under the title “Chipping Away at 50 Years of Occupation.” Whitson asserted that “[t]here are no prospects for peaceful resolution of the conflict that result in the restoration of the human rights of the Palestinian people”—which, in light of HRW’s position on the “right of return,” should presumably be read as a lament that Israel will not voluntarily cease to exist as a Jewish state.
Whitson observed that “Palestinians seem resigned and defeated,” and shockingly, she then noted with ostensible regret: “Gone is the bluster of Hamas, apparently exhausted from rattling its Gaza cage, unapologetically lobbing shoddy rockets into Israeli cities despite the resulting tsunami of airborne Israel Defense Forces (IDF) devastation in its territory.”
Between 2001 and 2017, when Whitson wrote her article, Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups fired more than 17,000 rockets into Israel—which is, on average, more than 1,000 rockets a year. Since these rockets are usually targeting Israeli towns and villages near Gaza, anyone serious about human rights would consider each and every one a war crime. It is breathtaking that Whitson would dismiss these rockets as “bluster” and even suggest that it is rather admirable that Hamas is so ‘unapologetic’ about “lobbing” them “into Israeli cities.”
One can only wonder if Whitson rejoiced that the “bluster” is back big time when Hamas and Islamic Jihad recently struck southern Israel with a barrage of some 700 rockets over the course of 48 hours, killing four Israelis and wounding about 130.
Since the riots started more than a year ago, Hamas terrorists have managed to set devastating fires destroying agricultural areas and nature reserves in Israeli territories bordering Gaza. The leader of Hamas encouraged the rioters to “take down the border and tear out their [i.e. Israelis’] hearts from their bodies.” There have been plenty of similar declarations; Gaza’s Hamas leader has also acknowledged that his terror group was receiving “a lot of money, equipment, and expertise” from Iran, while another high-ranking Hamas official admitted that all the talk of “peaceful resistance” was simply a useful “terminological deception.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s a “terminological deception” that HRW is eager to support by insisting that Hamas should not be blamed for bloodshed at the Gaza border. No wonder Hamas felt it was time to express its appreciation for HRW’s condemnations of Israel.
This was perhaps welcome, because when it comes to condemning Israel, Whitson will not be picky about her allies, but rather employs the kind of “pragmatism” she showed when she went fundraising in Saudi Arabia. Exactly a year ago, she posted a tweet reacting to a condemnation of Israel’s response to the Gaza riots by Jordan’s foreign minister with the comment: “Your turn @AdelAljubeir and @abzayed and @mfaEgypt — have any firm words for your ally @Netanyahu and his open fire policies that allow this massacre to unfold?”
The individuals she tagged—and described as ‘allied’ with Netanyahu in order to taunt them—included Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Aljubeir and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed as well as Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The dismal human rights records of the countries that these officials represent clearly didn’t bother Whitson in the least as she was trying to elicit Arab condemnations of Israel. Whitson’s tweet—in particular the fact that she taunted the Arab ministers as Netanyahu allies—also suggests that she is not all that happy to see Arab hostility to Israel diminished.
Since Whitson doesn’t have qualms about trying to get Saudi donations by advertising HRW’s efforts to delegitimize Israel and since she would happily team up with all the autocratic regimes of the Middle East to condemn Israel, it’s no surprise that she is not choosey about the sources of news that make Israel look bad.
As I documented in a series of screenshots posted on Twitter, Whitson freely promotes blatantly antisemitic sites that are sympathetic to Hamas, including Iran’s Press TV and Electronic Intifada, and she doesn’t mind spreading fabrications and conspiracy theories or allegations that echo antisemitic blood libels.
— Dr. Petra Marquardt-Bigman (@WarpedMirrorPMB) May 15, 2018
Ken Roth’s loathing for Israel and its supporters
Whitson can flaunt her intense dislike for Israel so openly on social media because her boss Ken Roth does the same. UN Watch director Hillel Neuer has described the veteran executive director of HRW, who has held this post since 1993, as “the most powerful individual in the human rights universe.” While Neuer believes that HRW “accomplishes important work on many areas,” he has criticized the fact that Roth’s Twitter feed reveals an almost “pathological” tendency to portray the world’s only Jewish state “as irredeemably irredentist, racist or bloodthirsty.” There are plenty of others who have documented Roth’s openly displayed loathing for Israel.
In order to understand how deeply the powerful HRW boss despises the Jewish state and its supporters, it’s essential to recall Jeffrey Goldberg’s 2009 article on “Fundraising Corruption at Human Rights Watch.” Goldberg recounted that he was in disbelief when he first saw reports that “Human Rights Watch officials went trolling for dollars in Saudi Arabia,” and he therefore turned to Ken Roth to find out if this had really taken place as reported. Roth tried his very best to remain evasive, but Goldberg insisted after much back and forth on asking directly: “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.”
So when HRW gets criticized by anyone who might be a “supporter” of Israel, everyone knows that it’s enough to just shrug it off as “lies and deception” or, for a change, as “lies and obfuscation.” And no doubt, there’s money to be made in some places if you present yourself as a victim of the lying and deceptive and obfuscating supporters of the world’s only Jewish state.
Why dozens of dead Palestinians are missing from a recent HRW report on Palestinian abuse
While HRW officials are not shy about displaying their intense dislike of Israel on social media, the organization does occasionally try to pretend that they are impartial enough to also investigate human rights abuses perpetrated by Palestinians.
Last October, HRW published a report that claims to document the “machineries of repression” that the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza employ “to crush dissent.” The introduction to the report gravely concludes that “Both the PA and Hamas regularly speak of Palestinian independence and unity, but detention and torture of rivals and critics undermine their best argument: the promise of greater freedom. National reconciliation and freedom will require reckoning with these serious abuses, holding perpetrators to account, and dismantling their machineries of repression.”
Since I was asked to write an article about the report, I had to read it. My first impression was that it seemed remarkably meager considering that it was touted as “the result of a two-year investigation.” I realized what’s missing when I came to page 51, where one sentence suffices to deal with the most egregious abuses: “Hamas authorities have also carried out 25 executions since they took control in Gaza in June 2017 [sic—Hamas took control in June 2007], including 6 in 2017, following trials that lacked appropriate due process protections and courts in Gaza have sentenced 117 people to death, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.”
So a report that is supposedly based on “a two-year investigation” relies on another human rights organization to provide a one-sentence summary of executions carried out by the terror group that rules Gaza. Apparently, during the two years they were preparing the report, it didn’t dawn on the hard-working people at HRW to check their own records.
Had they done so, they would have found what I found: Hamas carried out considerably more than “25 executions” since taking power in 2007. Going through the relevant HRW statements and some additional media reports, I realized that HRW repeatedly cited contradictory figures; apparently, they couldn’t be bothered to keep up. However, eventually I counted at least 84 Palestinians who were executed since 2007 by Hamas or affiliated groups; most of them had been accused of being “traitors” or of collaborating with Israel. Some of the executions were performed as a public spectacle, and in at least one case, a body was subsequently dragged through the streets tied to a motorcycle.
The appalling sloppiness displayed by HRW when it comes to keeping track of the murderous record of the Islamist terror group that controls Gaza is a telling sign of how little Palestinian human rights matter to HRW when Israel can’t be blamed.
But there is perhaps more to the apparent reluctance of HRW to publicize the brutality of Hamas towards the Palestinians under its rule.
When three Palestinians “accused of collaborating with Israel” were executed in April 2017, HRW reportedly condemned the executions and, rather bizarrely, Sarah Leah Whitson advised Hamas that by executing people, they projected “weakness, not strength.”
Unsurprisingly, the Islamist terror group decided to disregard Whitson’s recommendations about how to project “strength” and proceeded to execute another three Palestinians a few weeks later. The three men were accused of assassinating a Hamas military commander and of “collaborating with the Zionist enemy.” Hundreds of onlookers were reportedly allowed to watch the executions, and for those who couldn’t attend, a Gaza news site provided a livestream on their Facebook page. Since the men had been arrested only two weeks before their execution, HRW sternly declared that “the ‘rush’ to kill the men ‘smacks of militia rule, not the rule of law’.” Well, Hamas is in fact an Islamist terror militia and rules accordingly.
But there is probably method to the madness: the fact that HRW decided to all but ignore executions and extra-judicial killings of political opponents by Hamas in its report on Palestinian repression made it possible to treat the Islamist terror group that seized power by force as no less legitimate than their staunch opponents in the Palestinian Authority (PA), which – rightly or wrongly – enjoys considerable international recognition.
As a result of this contrived symmetry, the HRW report includes parallel sections with recommendations for Hamas and the PA on how to improve; likewise, HRW urges states that give financial and political support to use their leverage. In the case of Hamas this means that HRW pretends it makes sense to ask Qatar, Iran, and Turkey to press the Islamist terror group they support to respect human rights.
Whether you want to laugh or cry about this deliberate denial of realities, it does provide an excellent illustration of the deeply flawed approach of HRW. They refuse to take into account that an Islamist theocracy like Iran and a terror group like Hamas that have a long record of brutally abusing their own people are only interested in human rights when their opponents can be accused of violating them.
Hamas has a charter that glorifies genocidal war crimes as a lofty, religiously mandated goal—which doesn’t prevent Sarah Leah Whitson from worrying in her New York office that the “bluster of Hamas” might be gone. But it’s perhaps understandable that if you hope to eliminate the world’s only Jewish state, you wouldn’t want to be too harsh with the Islamist terror group that exists for precisely this purpose.
It is also noteworthy how Omar Shakir, whose office was presumably responsible for the report, wanted readers to understand it. According to Shakir, an Al Jazeera op-ed written by a member of the staunchly anti-Zionist Palestinian Policy Network Al-Shabaka provides “vital context.” Unsurprisingly, the op-ed argues against “placing the onus solely on the Palestinian leadership” and insists that the HRW report “needs to be considered in the wider political and historical context which has facilitated these abusive regimes.”
While the ‘abusive regime’ established by Hamas merits just one sentence, much of the article is devoted to arguing that the problem is really the PA in the West Bank and its security cooperation with Israel “under the false auspice of preventing terror.” If you need an even more unmistakable give-away, the author asserts that the PA exists “to contain and maintain the Palestinian populations in the 1967 territories.”
As long-time anti-Israel activist Omar Shakir knows full well, when activists talk about “1967 territories”, i.e. the West Bank and Gaza, they indicate that there are also the “1948 territories,” i.e. Israel before the Six Day War in 1967, and that both “territories” rightly belong to the Palestinians.
Conclusion – HRW’s anti-Israel bias is beyond repair
Just following some of the leading HRW officials on Twitter and looking for their pronouncements on Israel would provide almost daily new evidence that they don’t even bother to pretend to be impartial and fair.
But I think all you really need to know about HRW and its attitude to Israel is that almost 20 years ago, when peace still seemed possible and a U.S. president did all he could to achieve it, HRW decided to endorse Palestinian demands for a “right to return,” thereby endorsing Palestinian demands to transform the world’s only Jewish state into yet another Arab-Muslim majority state.
For all practical intents and purposes, HRW has therefore been an anti-Zionist organization ever since. As far as HRW is concerned, Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a violation of Palestinian human rights.
Whether Omar Shakir sits in an office in Jerusalem or in New York will not make a difference to his output, and whoever might replace him will obviously also toe the HRW line on Israel. At the same time, I don’t quite see why Israel should give a work permit to employees of foreign NGOs who come to work for the demise of the Jewish state. By trying to force Israel to host a longtime anti-Israel activist, HRW has provided a stark reminder of its bias and its arrogant attitude that it has no need to even pretend to be impartial.
But this is arguably not only about Israel. If an organization is so shameless about its bias towards one country, it seems reasonable to question how much ideological fixations affect its work on other countries. The apparently widespread idea that an organization working on human rights must be assumed to reflect the highest ethical standards and should be automatically exempt from scrutiny and criticism is certainly not justified.
In addition, HRW staff will also use their social media clout to tout political viewpoints that may not have all that much to do with their work.
Rashida Tlaib’s recent revolting effort to rewrite history by claiming Palestinians provided a safe haven for Jews during and after the Holocaust provides a good example. As of this writing, the timelines of Sarah Leah Whitson and Omar Shakir feature a combined 15 re-tweets—in just 24 hours—in defense of Tlaib. But perhaps Tlaib, just like HRW, has the human right not to be criticized, especially not by Israel supporters, who, as Ken Roth has decreed, come up only with “lies and deception” or “lies and obfuscation.
Anti-Israel bias at Human Rights Watch is so pervasive, and has gone on so long, that it is beyond repair. HRW should be disregarded as a legitimate neutral voice on anything related to Israel.DONATE
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