Human rights watchers with poor visibility

15 Oct 2009 by CST

The website of the Jewish Chronicle has a slightly edited version of this article (below) by CST's Mark Gardner. The article draws upon lengthier pieces that have previously appeared on CST's blog, concerning Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International

The JC has entitled the article as "Human rights watchers with poor visibility"; and sub-titled it as "Those charged with preventing Nazi horrors should not make light of them". Both titles are entirely appropriate and should be seriously contemplated by all human rights organisations.

Today, groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) are society’s guardians of universal human rights. Their mission is anchored upon the horrors of Nazism, as exemplified by the Holocaust. You may expect such groups to have zero tolerance for anything associated with Nazism. If so, you are mistaken.

When Marc Garlasco, HRW’s “battlefield analyst”, was shown by some pro-Israel lobby groups to be an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia; a wearer of Iron Cross sweatshirts; the author of a book sold by www.ironcross1939; and to use “flak88” as his Internet pseudonym and car number plate, HRW’s first reaction was to shoot the messenger. They refused to accept that Garlasco’s behaviour could even be questioned, stating “This accusation is demonstrably false and fits into a campaign” to protect Israel from HRW scrutiny. They continued, “To imply that Garlasco’s collection is evidence of Nazi sympathies is not only absurd but an attempt to deflect attention from his deeply felt efforts to uphold the laws of war”.

HRW belatedly suspended Garlasco. The announcement is on their website, atop the earlier denunciation of his critics. It says HRW is “looking into the matter of… Garlasco’s collection of Second World War memorabilia and an inquiry is under way. Garlasco has been temporarily suspended…with full pay pending the inquiry. This is not a disciplinary measure…”.

Meanwhile, on the Amnesty website, an Amnesty UK press officer’s blog asked, “After HRW, is Amnesty International next? Are we set to be outed as a hotbed of Holocaust-deniers? Will key Amnesty researchers be unmasked, shown to be furtive collectors of David Irving DVDs?...”. 

He railed,“Rather than sinking to such scurillity, Israel ought to confront these serious criticisms head-on”; and concluded that if Israel and Hamas ever faced the International Criminal Court, then its chief prosecutor would be accused of “a fetishistic interest in the leather boots worn by members of Himmler’s Waffen-SS units.”

Blog articles are less formal than the sober, official statements made by actual organisations: but I fear that these playground-level jibes are not unrepresentative of Amnesty’s instinctive reaction to the Garlasco controversy. Like HRW’s reaction, it flays the pro-Israel messenger and diminishes the right of Jews (especially those deemed to be pro-Israeli Jews) to publicly express their fears about antisemitism.

This is part of a wider trend, visible to varying extents across the spectrum of the political left and its media: namely, the slippery slope that leads from anti-Israel antipathy, to an instinctive suspicion and rejection of mainstream Jewish sensibilities. As Jews, we may emotively call this antisemitism, but it is perhaps better described as an anti-Jewish impact of anti-Israel hostility. This is not just semantics: if we want a trade unionist or a Guardian writer to change their ways, then shouting “antisemite” at them is unlikely to provide a constructive start to the conversation. 

It is, however, the self-declared human rights organisations that bear the heaviest moral burden to behave decently towards Jews and issues of antisemitism. This is the legacy of their chosen heritage, including the leading role that Jews have played in the development of the human rights movement. Indeed, if these organisations do not rapidly address and reverse the current trend, then they risk betraying not only Jews: but also the very founding principles of modern human rights.

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