"We Fundamentally Disagree With Mr Bernstein’s Views"

22 Oct 2009 by CST

It is plain that if the Jewish state is regarded as a pariah, a compulsive serial abuser of human rights, then Jews everywhere will suffer by (real or imaginary) association.

So, it matters when Robert Bernstein, founder and emeritus chair of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and its chairman for 20 years, writes in the New York Times to regretfully inform HRW that its scrutiny and attitude to Israel “are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state”. As with HRW’s recent Marc Garlasco controversy, however, what matters even more is HRW’s public response to Bernstein:

 We fundamentally disagree with Mr Bernstein’s views.  

In the Garlasco case, pro-Israel activists showed that HRW’s ‘battlefield analyst’ was a collector of Nazi memorabilia. HRW’s reaction was to savage his critics and to dismiss their concerns out of hand. Even when HRW belatedly suspended Garlasco on full pay, their contemptuous dismissal of his critics and their concerns remained untouched under the news release.

With Bernstein, their publicly stated reaction is again evasive and dismissive. Above all, however, its lack of respect or empathy for Bernstein’s soberly expressed concerns, tells you all that you need to know about how some of the world’s leading human rights organisations regard mainstream Jewish sensibilities.

HRW's news release on Bernstein's article, and a subsequent letter in the New York Times from HRW’s present chair, mention private discussions between Bernstein and HRW's directors on the criticisms he then raised in his NYT article. It is HRW’s public reaction that matters, as it is this that informs the general public how they should react to the concerns of Bernstein and others of his supposed ilk.

There has long been an instinctive reaction from groups such as HRW to savage their critics as being antagonistic pro-Israel lobbyists. There is no way that Robert Bernstein fits that ugly ethnic profiling, and yet HRW's public reaction effectively treats him as just another pro-Israel snake in the grass. This suggests that HRW’s public reaction to Bernstein reflects an institutionalised inability to deal fairly and squarely with any concerns that are raised by Jews who don’t spend half their lives condemning Israel.

The suspicion is strengthened when you contemplate the behaviour of the many groups, politicians and media that share HRW’s milieu. It as is if the constant drip, drip, drip, of their attitude to Israel has gradually eroded all of the sense and sensibility that such parties ever had towards the mainstream of the Jewish community.

For those of us who are concerned with antisemitism rather than Israel’s traumatised Public Relations, this is where attitudes to Israel rear their very ugly head. Even if HRW is entirely correct in every statement that it has ever made about Israel, this would still not justify the erosion of its attitude to mainstream Jews: as displayed by the simmering suspicion, contempt and downright hostility that its news releases on Garlasco and Bernstein suggest.

Bernstein’s article, from the New York Times, October 20th, is well worth reading in full. It is here and concludes with this 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.

HRW’s response is dated the same day. It can be read in full here, and has been scrutinised here.

The response is entitled “Why we report on ‘open’ societies” and twice says that HRW does not believe that only “closed” societies should be scrutinised. Bernstein’s article, however, never said any such thing. He stresses that an important founding principle of HRW was to distinguish between closed and open societies, and states that when he left in 1998, HRW “was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies”: but nowhere does he write that HRW should not work in open societies, as HRW’s news release clearly infers three times in its short length.

HRW does not directly challenge Bernstein’s assertion that they are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state, but they forcefully deny his claim that “in recent years HRW has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”

Note that Bernstein says HRW write far more about Israel than any other single country in the region. HRW’s reply, however, switches to discussing Israel relative to every other country added together. This is an evasion of the lowest order:

HRW does not devote more time and energy to Israel than other countries in the region…We’ve produced more than 1,700 reports, letters, news releases, and other commentaries on the Middle East and North Africa since January 2000, and the vast majority of these were about countries other than Israel. 

Disregarding HRW’s evasion, and unlike most of the claims and counter-claims that surround their work on Israel and the region, the general question ‘Does HRW do more on Israel than it does on any other nearby country?’ can be given a rudimentary check.

For instance, as of October 21st, accessing the HRW website and ‘google’ searching within it for the word Israel gives a return of “about 10,700”. Sudan gives a return of “about 11,500”. Sudan, however, is not really in the Middle East, nor North Africa. Iraq is, and it gives a return of “about 6,960”. So is Iran, which gives “about 6,020”. Egypt is “about 5,360”, Saudi Arabia is “about 5,290”, Libya is about 5,070, and Syria is about 3,220.

So, Israeli human rights are basically in the same bracket as Sudan’s: and up to twice as bad as the regional average. On a per capita basis, this would clearly make Jewish Israelis and their (real and imagined) Jewish supporters by far the worst people in the world, never mind the region. No wonder, then, that they should face such scorn from HRW.

Still, to be serious, whilst the google result is not irrelevant, it remains a very rough and quite facile way of estimating the importance of a country and its supporters to HRW. More digging is required: namely, the “browse by country” section of the HRW website, with requests for all reports or documents or news feeds about that country.

Not everything listed as under a country is solely about that nation, and it is not necessarily hostile as such, either. With that caveat, requesting information about “Israel and Occupied Territories” offers 67 website pages (comprising 5 pages of reports, 35 pages of documents, and 27 pages of news). Iran has 49 pages (3 of reports, 25 of documents, 21 of news). Egypt has 45 pages (5 of reports, 22 of documents, 18 of news). Iraq has 40 pages (7 of reports, 29 of documents, 24 of news). Syria has 20 pages (2 of reports, 10 of documents, 8 of news). Libya has 14 pages (1 of reports, 7 of documents, 6 of news). Sudan has 76 pages (6 of reports, 40 of documents, 30 of news).

There is a pattern here, and it is far closer to Robert Bernstein's analysis than HRW's. This clearly shows that HRW’s rebuttal of its founding chair’s concerns are somewhat overcooked.

There are also, however, elements of Robert Bernstein’s New York Times article that HRW’s news release utterly ignored. To duck Bernstein’s comments about the conduct of regimes in Iran and the Arab world is perhaps one thing, but the failure to make any response to his concerns about Hamas and Hizbollah is far more concerning. HRW, vitally carrying the human rights torch for the post-Holocaust era, simply ignores this from Bernstein’s heartfelt piece:

These groups [Hizbollah and Hamas] are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

If HRW cannot even muster the respect to properly answer its founding chairman when he raises a concern about incitement to genocide of Jews, then how can we possibly expect them to engage decently with any other Jewish concerns? Or perhaps I am being unfair again. After all, HRW’s Iranian pages make no mention of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s latest pro-genocidal outburst of September 18th, so perhaps they are unaware of it. Or, perhaps HRW did address Bernstein’s concerns. Perhaps they addressed them in the last sentence of the opening paragraph of their statement:

 We fundamentally disagree with Mr Bernstein’s views.

 - And there you have everything that you need to know about why there is such discord today between mainstream Jews, and so many of the world’s leading human rights organisations.

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“Since 2003, CST has been a stalwart supporter of ODIHR in its efforts to effectively monitor antisemitic hate crime in the OSCE Region. With its rigorous methodology and innovative partnerships with the British police, it is viewed by many as representing the gold standard for NGO responses to all forms of hate crime. I wish CST all success in its exciting new phase of work.”

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OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights