Human Rights Watch Expose: Less Than Meets The Eye?

The latest issue of The New Republic features a long piece purporting to expose the alleged anti-Israel bias of the leading NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). Not altogether surprising, you might say. Hardline supporters of Israel have been gunning for human rights organizations with increased intensity since the Gaza war, and HRW is second only to the Goldstone commission on their hit list. TNR under Marty Peretz has been a longtime leader in publishing hatchet jobs against Israel’s critics, and the piece’s author has a record of not-entirely-kosher statements regarding torture and Muslim birthrates. Given all this, most readers will know what to expect. (Kathleen Peritis, a longtime HRW board member who describes herself as both a Jew and a Zionist, has offered a rebuttal here.)

That said, the article actually isn’t terrible, at least by the (admittedly low) standards of TNR hit pieces. While author Benjamin Birnbaum provides a predictably anti-HRW spin to the piece, he is at least honest enough to include facts that help undercut the HRW-haters’ case. There are some interesting tidbits in this regard: for example, Marc Garlasco, the HRW military analyst who was forced out after the hardliners pounced on his penchant for collecting WWII (including Nazi) memorabilia, was apparently an internal critic of some of the organization’s criticisms of Israel — leading Birnbaum to conclude that in its zeal to discredit HRW, “the pro-Israel community had lynched one of the people at HRW who was most sympathetic to its concerns.”

Still, Birnbaum is clearly out to make the case that HRW has an anti-Israel animus — a case that proves to be rather thin, despite the piece’s length. It basically boils down to two main points. First, some principal figures in HRW’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division have a history of harsh criticism of Israeli policies. Second, some members of the HRW board, as well as founder Robert Bernstein, accuse the organization of devoting excessive attention to Israel’s misdeeds. (Bernstein leveled this accusation in a New York Times op-ed from last year; I previously criticized the piece’s argument here.)

Regarding the first point, I would simply note a quote from the article by MENA head Sarah Leah Whitson, a frequent target of the hardliners.

“For people who apply for jobs to be the researcher in Israel-Palestine, it’s probably going to be someone who’s done work on Israel-Palestine with a human rights background,” [Whitson] explained. “And guess what? People who do work with a human rights background on Israel-Palestine tend to find that there are a lot of Israeli abuses. And they tend to become human rights activists on the issue.”

On some level, whether or not one thinks that the backgrounds of HRW’s MENA staffers are problematic simply boils down to one’s opinions about the broader Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab conflicts. For those who think that Israel is primarily an aggrieved and innocent party in the conflict, it may seem that a history of criticizing Israeli policies is irrefutable evidence of anti-Israel bias. For those, however, who accept that Israel’s human rights record during the occupation and its recent wars has been poor, it only stands to reason that HRW’s staffers have criticized it. Human rights workers should be unbiased, but this does not mean that they must be “impartial” in the sense of allotting equal criticism to all sides — on the contrary, part of their job is to decide which abuses are most conspicuous and most remediable. The notion that HRW staffers must balance every criticism of Israel with a matching criticism of Palestinians is reminiscent of nothing so much as the “he-said, she-said” style of domestic political reporting so common in the mainstream media, in which the typical story simply repeats Democratic and Republican talking points verbatim without delving into which ones are actually true.

As for the internal criticisms by various HRW board members, I don’t have inside knowledge about any of the parties. Still, anyone who spends much time in well-to-do East Coast Jewish circles will note the prevalence of the PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine) personality trait. This is the familiar type who is relentlessly liberal on every domestic issue, overflowing with compassion for the people of Sudan and Zimbabwe and Burma and so on, but strangely defensive — not to say militant — when the subject comes to Israel. Given the wealthy New York philanthropic circles from which the HRW donor base (and board) is disproportionately drawn, it is hardly surprising that there would be a few disgruntled PEP types among the organization’s higher-ups who are willing to go public with their criticisms. (Bernstein’s own criticisms in his Times op-ed were, as noted, quite poorly argued, and showed telltale signs of PEP-itis.)

The larger context of this latest attack is, of course, the broader assault on human rights groups critical of Israel. While I suspect that HRW will not suffer measurably from TNR’s would-be expose, it and other rights groups can surely expect more attempts to discredit them so long as they persist in their criticism.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. In short, “it’s okay if HRW disporportionately focuses on Israel because Israel’s human rights record is worse than that of the P.A., Hezbollah, or Hamas, not to mention the other assorted dictatorships, theocracies, and kleptocracies in the MIddle East.. Sure, if you believe that, HRW’s hiring of staffers with an anti-Israel (but not, say, anti-Hamas) “solidarity” background makes sense. But only far leftists and jihadist apologists believe that. Which is an apt description of HRW’s Middle East division, and the author of this blog post.

  2. Given that Israel is a 1) a state with official or de facto control over the lives of millions of people, 2) an extremely powerful state militarily, and 3) a large recipient of U.S. military aid, it seems perfectly natural to devote more attention to its abuses than to those of entities like Hamas or the PA, which have neither its control over the lives of comparably large populations, its military capability and impact, or its status as a privileged U.S. aid recipient. While you suggest that HRW is ignoring the other states in the Middle East, I would point out that — according to the Birnbaum article — HRW has devoted the MOST attention over the last decade to Egypt (the other big U.S. aid recipient) and Iraq (whose relationship to the U.S. need not be spelled out). This suggests that HRW has decided to focus its attention particularly on countries with close relationships to the U.S., both because the U.S. is more implicated in their abuses and because the U.S. has more leverage to attempt to remedy them. In my opinion this is an entirely sensible policy.

    Suppose I were to accept your contention that the PA, Hamas, and Hezbollah are all worse “pound-for-pound” offenders than Israel. What would follow from this? That human rights groups should focus on the per capita intensity of abuses rather than the overall scope? On the contrary, I would argue that their primary responsibility is to focus on the biggest human rights problems, not the baddest people. Hence you will notice that HRW has devoted far more attention to China’s human rights abuses than Burma’s, despite the fact that Burma’s are by general consensus more severe on a per capita or “pound for pound” level. Would you say that they are wrong to do so?

  3. Daniel, you silly fool, don’t you know that in zoos all across this country verily the world can be found sleeper cells of Burmese Tigers. Laugh if you like, they have more global bases than the US military’s mere 750. And China, CHINA they can’t even spell a fortune cookie correctly, like a billion people can find their way out of a paper bag. Don’t underestimate Burma, they are no paper tiger.

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