Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Broken Watch

Does Human Rights Watch have an Israel problem?

Allison Hoffman
August 26, 2009
HRW executive director Roth speaking at the National Press Club.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
HRW executive director Roth speaking at the National Press Club.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 15, David Bernstein published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing senior officials of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy organization, for traveling to Saudi Arabia—a state frequently cited for its own human-rights abuses—to solicit support, and possibly raise money, from influential Saudis by describing HRW’s work in the Middle East. During the dinner, Sarah Whitson, the head of the group’s Middle East division, noted that one of her unit’s recent reports, an investigation of Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza, had attracted resistance from “pro-Israel pressure groups” who wanted to “discredit” it, according to an account that ran on Arab News, an English-language Saudi news site.

The next day, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared political war on HRW and other non-government organizations that were continuing to investigate Israel’s conduct during last winter’s war in Gaza. “We will dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups,” Netanyahu’s chief policy adviser, Ron Dermer, told the paper. “We will insist that they defend their record and their values.” Last week, after HRW released a 63-page report accusing Israeli troops of killing Palestinian civilians who were waving white flags in Gaza, Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, accused HRW’s deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, of attending a 1976 anti-Israel conference organized by Saddam Hussein and of writing bitterly anti-Zionist screeds at roughly the same time. The story, which was translated into English and was reprinted on Commentary’s blog, provoked a heated letter from Stork, who said he had written exposes against Hussein in the 1970s and did not espouse the anti-Zionist views attributed to him. (Stork did not respond to e-mail or phone messages from Tablet.)

At a time when Jews are anxious about how Israel will fare in negotiations with the Obama administration over a peace deal with the Palestinians, the Stork and Whitson affairs present an unfamiliar problem to HRW: how to reassure liberal Jews, including HRW’s founder and one of its current board members, worried that the organization is playing into the hands of anti-Israel activists from New York to Riyadh. Whether or not its staff actively seek out ways to target Israel, as Netanyahu’s office claims, by appearing to focus so many of its resources on Israel—five reports have been issued already since the Gaza War, three of them criticizing the IDF’s conduct, and another report about Israel’s “wanton destruction” is forthcoming—and by hiring people like Stork and Whitson, HRW, under executive director Ken Roth, leaves those doubts unanswered. “Ken feels their facts are right, and the critics are wrong, next case,” said Sid Sheinberg, the former Hollywood mogul and vice-chair of HRW’s board. “I don’t believe that’s the way the Israelis should be treated.”

Founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch—mainly to help insure that dissident intellectuals were treated fairly by the Soviet Union in accordance with the Helsinki Accords—HRW has, over the past 20 years, come to occupy a diplomatic position of heft and responsibility, “somewhere between a permanent and a rotating member of the Security Council,” jokes one longtime U.N. watcher. Even harsh critics like Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University who also runs NGO Monitor, which tracks HRW and other NGOs in Israel, concede that HRW is unmatched as a voice for exposing grave human rights abuses, from Sudan to China. According to Roth, its work in Israel is no different from its work anywhere else. “We look at the worst abuse on both sides,” he said, pointing out recent reports on Hamas rocket fire and executions. “It’s not that we’re exclusively focusing on Israel. But if the question is, ‘Why are we more concerned about the [Gaza] war rather than on other rights abuses [in Israel]?’ Well, we’ve got to pick and choose—we’ve got finite resources.”

HRW has been dogged for years by Israeli claims that it is unfairly biased, or, more specifically, that it has failed to hold others—namely, Hamas and Hezbollah, along with anti-Semitic groups worldwide—sufficiently accountable for human rights violations. But relations between Israel and HRW are now at their worst since 2001, when Israel, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, blamed the organization for failing to stand up against expressions of anti-Semitism during the United Nations’ 2001 conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. “This is the first time it’s really resonated,” said Steinberg. “It’s only in the past couple of years that Jewish board members, especially, began to be concerned and think there’s a problem.”

“They frequently say, ‘We’re trying to be evenhanded,’” said Robert Bernstein, the founder of Helsinki Watch and now a board member emeritus at HRW. “I don’t understand trying to be evenhanded, because to me Israel is interested and a believer in human rights and it stands out in the Middle East as practicing it in their country.” At its inception, he said, Helsinki Watch planned only to operate in closed societies—undemocratic, illiberal countries without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and other basic rights. Operating in open, democratic societies like Israel is complicated because, as Bernstein noted, there are domestic organizations, like B’tselem in Israel, that do “a beautiful job” of holding their own governments accountable. “If you could cover every human rights act, it would be fine,” Bernstein said. “But you can’t, so you have to make choices about what you cover, and once you make choices, you’re political, whether you want to be or not.” The overall result of HRW’s current work, he added, “is to say we’re being evenhanded in a way that makes it come out that both sides are equal abusers of human rights—I don’t agree with that.”

But the organization also takes great pride in criticism, as evidence that it’s doing its job well. “I’m not going to do something to appease people who have no interest in the truth, or who are only screaming about Israel,” said Whitson, the Middle East division head. A former high-ranking staffer recalled being told by Carroll Bogert, Roth’s deputy, that “Human Rights Watch doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to Israel” after asking whether it made sense to release a document critical of Israel on the same day the organization was holding a fundraiser with Jewish donors. “There are human rights groups that deliberately choose not to cover Israel, and we’re not one of them,” said Gary Sick, a Columbia professor who is on HRW’s Middle East board. “If we backed away because it causes some discomfort, because of all the radical attacks that are directed at us, what we’d be doing is emasculating ourselves.”

After the Journal piece was published, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg published a lengthy email exchange in which Roth acknowledged that the standard pitch in the organization’s fundraising efforts in the Middle East includes a reference to the “lies and obfuscation inevitably thrown our way” by Israel and its supporters. Roth, who said the organization hasn’t lost any significant donors over its latest round of Israel reports, told Tablet he interpreted the attacks as a sign of credibility. “If we were irrelevant, if people didn’t take us seriously, we would be left alone,” he said. Roth, whose father fled Germany in 1938, said he felt particularly strongly that Israel should not get a free pass—either from his staff or from his donors. “I identify with the persecution of the Jews—it’s why I do this work, and I don’t believe we should make exceptions for Israel,” Roth said. “The people who don’t believe in that principle, who want to apply them to the other guy”—Hamas—“and not to their favorite country, don’t support us already, and I don’t want them.”

But critics like Sheinberg, the legendary Lew Wasserman’s longtime No. 2 at MCA, respond that even being right isn’t the same as succeeding as a rights organization. Recently a donor called Sheinberg asking whether it was too late to have his donation to HRW refunded in light of an an op-ed Whitson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, in which she bluntly compared Israeli settlers to thieves. For Sheinberg, the message was clear: “Don’t we know when it’s time to talk and when it’s time to shut up?”

Correction, August 27: Ken Roth’s quote, “But if the question is, ‘Why are we more concerned about the [Gaza] war rather than on other rights abuses?’ Well, we’ve got to pick and choose—we’ve got finite resources” referred specifically to HRW’s work in Israel. It has been edited to clarify that.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.