Last month, Robert Bernstein, the founder and former longtime chairman of Human Rights Watch, issued a stinging condemnation of the organization for its maniacal anti-Israel bias. This was only the latest blow to HRW’s credibility on Israel-related issues.
It started when I reported that HRW’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, had taken a fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia. Appearing before Saudi elites, including several government officials, Whitson appealed for support for its coverage of Israel’s alleged human rights violations in Gaza and its battles with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations.” Whitson dismissed criticism of her junket as “racist.”
The Saudi trip opened the floodgates, leading an army of bloggers to investigate HRW’s staff. The organization’s objectivity was called into serious question.
It turns out that when Whitson joined HRW in 2004, she was serving her second term on the board of the New York chapter of the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, she organized and attended a lobbying mission to U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan to support the Palestinian side and condemn Israel.
She’s also a self-described big fan and admirer of the fanatically anti-Israel polemicist Norman Finkelstein, an anti-Israel extremist and avowed Hezbollah supporter. Not surprisingly, one of Whitson’s first acts at HRW was to support the international boycott of Caterpillar for selling equipment to the Israeli army.
Whitson’s deputy, Joe Stork, publicly supports the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Stork’s only obvious credential for the HRW position was his two decades of experience as a vitriolic, leftist, anti-Israel polemicist for Middle East Report.
Perhaps most embarrassing, bloggers discovered that Marc Garlasco, HRW’s military analyst and a frequent critic of Israel, was an enthusiastic collector of Nazi memorabilia, prone to making comments on Internet discussion boards like, “The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!” (Garlasco has been suspended pending an investigation.)
Several other HRW Middle East division hires have been anti-Israel activists, including a writer for a Web site with the charming name Electronic Intifada. There are, needless to say, no HRW Middle East employees with a similar record of pro-Israel activism.
None of this would matter if HRW, in practice, showed a penchant for strict neutrality. Instead, HRW focuses disproportionately on Israel; accuses Israel of “indiscriminate bombing” of Lebanon and Gaza; and reports rumors, gossip and hearsay from Palestinian sources as facts.
When critics point out errors, omissions and biases in HRW’s reports on Israel, its officials don’t just refuse dialogue, they respond with contempt. HRW Director Ken Roth claims that “we report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception.”
In short, if HRW wants to regain its credibility, a housecleaning is needed. HRW’s board needs to send Garlasco, Roth, Whitson, Stork and the rest of the current crew packing.
HRW can then bring in some sincere human rights advocates without anti-Israel ideological priors to staff its Middle East division. Or, HRW can continue to preach to the leftist, anti-Israel choir. But it shouldn’t expect anyone else to pay attention.
David E. Bernstein is a foundation professor at the George Mason University School of Law.