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Human Rights Watch’s Israel/Palestine Director Advocates for Boycotting Israel. That Doesn’t Mean Israel Should Expel Him.

HRW is blatantly lying about the anti-Israel activism of its employee. But Israel’s response isn’t helping matters.

Yair Rosenberg
May 09, 2018
Human Rights Watch
Omar ShakirHuman Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch
Omar ShakirHuman Rights Watch

On Tuesday, Israel revoked the residency permit of Omar Shakir, the Israel/Palestine director for Human Right Watch, on the grounds that he advocates for the boycott of Israel. In 2017, Israel had initially denied Shakir a permit for similar reasons, before reversing the decision. The problem, Israeli officials said, was not with human rights activists writ large—of which there are thousands in Israel and the Palestinian territories—but rather with anti-Israel political activists like Shakir who seek the total isolation of the Jewish state while masquerading as impartial observers of its actions.

For its part, Human Rights Watch argues that Shakir’s expulsion is a chilling attempt to remove a legitimate non-partisan critic of Israeli policy from the playing field. The charge that Shakir supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, they contend, is entirely spurious and pure pretext. “This is not about Shakir, but rather about muzzling Human Rights Watch and shutting down criticism of Israel’s rights record,” HRW said in a pointed statement released to news outlets. “Neither Human Rights Watch nor its representative, Shakir, promotes boycotts of Israel.”

Both sides of this dispute, however, are being disingenuous. The Israeli move is not really an effort to combat BDS, but a PR stunt for its government to posture against it. After all, if Human Rights Watch is really as biased against Israel as they claim, surely Shakir’s replacement will be no better. Rather, his removal is simply an opportunity for Gilad Erdan—the head of make-work “Strategic Affairs” ministry given to the Likud #2 after he didn’t receive a real cabinet post—to pander to the right-wing base by showing up the Israel haters.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, is flagrantly lying about Shakir’s conduct, as anyone with access to his publicly available Twitter feed can easily confirm. Contrary to HRW’s claim that “neither Human Rights Watch nor its representative, Shakir, promotes boycotts of Israel,” that is exactly what Shakir has done for years. Here he is cheering on the complete boycott of Israeli universities, apparently in disregard for standards of academic freedom:

Here he is sharing resources to help academics promote BDS:

In other words, Human Rights Watch sent a known advocate for the total boycott of Israel to serve as its ostensibly objective man on the ground there, then lied to media outlets about it, assuming reporters wouldn’t think to fact-check the august organization.

This brazen deception on the part of HRW should shock but not surprise. Back in 2009, Robert Bernstein, the celebrated founder of Human Rights Watch, took to the pages of the New York Times to publicly rebuke his own organization for anti-Israel animus, noting that it had “written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.” An investigative report by Ben Birnbaum—whose work on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would later receive the National Press Club’s Award for Diplomatic Correspondence—found that multiple members of HRW’s own governing bodies agreed with Bernstein, including Judge Richard Goldstone, no stranger to criticism of Israel. “There are roughly as many reports on Israel as on Iran, Syria, and Libya combined,” Birnbaum noted, an odd prioritization for an organization devoted to fighting for human rights around the globe.

In other words, the Israeli government is right that Human Rights Watch and Shakir have been dishonest about their motivations and their work. But that doesn’t mean Israel is right to kick Shakir out.

To begin with, as I’ve written previously, one does not win battles with illiberal individuals by adopting their tools. The answer to the blacklists of Israeli academics, artists, and others promoted by Shakir is not blacklists of people like Shakir, but fewer blacklists. This, however, is clearly not the approach being taken by the Israeli government. But even within that government’s own dubious framework of fighting fire with fire, it makes little sense to expel Shakir, since his replacement will likely be just as prejudicial, only with less of a paper trail exposing the bias. The only thing that Israel will gain, then, from symbolically booting Shakir is a wave of international opprobrium.

In an ideal world, both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli government would be more concerned with human rights and less with scoring partisan political points from their most extreme supporters. But that does not appear to be the world we live in.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.