The raging controversy over Human Rights Watch’s anti-Israel bias, which was sparked with a blog post here at the VC that was republished by the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com, just won’t die. Readers will recall that the piece focused on a talk Sarah Leah Whitson gave in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in which she tried to win friends (and their money) by emphasizing HRW’s work criticizing Israel, and HRW’s battles against “pro-Israel pressure groups.”
Since then, HRW and Israel has been the subject of countless blog posts criticizing (mostly) and defending (occasionally) HRW, and, as best as I can tell given my language skills, been the subject of newspaper articles or editorials in Israel, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., several Arab countries, Australia, Spain and Italy. HRW has issued a release defending itself (explaining how important it is for HRW to counteract the impression in the Arab world that it is pro-Israel!), and has even taken to proactively responding to criticism in Jewish media outlets. Meanwhile, various Israeli government officials criticized Human Rights Watch. According to reports in the Israeli media, the controversy has led the Israeli government to reconsider how it interacts with NGOs, and whether it should be permitting foreign governments to fund local NGOs.
So let me add some additional fuel to the fire.
Sarah Leah Whitson has been HRW’s Middle East Director for five years. Ms. Whitson was a classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, and served on the board of the Armenian Bar Association. According to her bio on HRW’s website, “before joining Human Rights Watch, Whitson worked as an attorney in New York for Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton.”
What the official bio doesn’t tell you is that Whitson was an active member of the New York chapter of the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee. She had served on the Steering Committee (source: ADC Times, Apr 30, 2002). When HRW hired her, she was serving a two-year term on the new Board of Directors, which replaced the Steering Committee (Source: ADC Times, Jan. 31, 2004).
The ADC styles itself as a civil rights organization, but like the Jewish organizations on which it is modeled, it also involves itself in Middle East issues, specifically by supporting the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel. Local chapters are often more active on foreign policy issues than is the national organization.
And indeed, the New York chapter generally, and Whitson personally, were active in pro-Palestinian politics. The April 30, 2002, ADC Times. published at the height of the Second Intifada, with buses and restaurants being blown up regularly in Israel, reports:
The crisis in Palestine was the main focus of the New York Chapter’s work over the past two months. This work culminated on April 29 with a meeting for representatives of the ADC with the United Nations Secretary General [Kofi Annan] set up by members of the NY Chapter [and see this press release, noting Whitson’s attendance]. ADC Chapter President Nick Khoury and Steering Committee member Sarah Leah Whitson helped organize this meeting….
ADC NY members’ activism to raise awareness of the situation of Palestinians has taken many forms. On March 30, we chartered a bus to DC so that members could participate in the Land Day Rally at Freedom Plaza. [The New York chapter also held a local rally]….
On April 14, ADC NY organized a silent vigil outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral to draw attention to the fact that Palestinian Christians are also suffering under Israeli occupation….
The Jan. 31, 2004 ADC Times , which noted Whitson’s election to the Board of Trustees, reported that the New York chapter “continued our Palestine activism over the summer.”
So when HRW hired Ms. Whitson to be its Middle East director, it was hiring someone that was in the middle of serving what amounted to a second term on the Board of Directors of an organization that was firmly and openly on the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And she had personally engaged in pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism while serving in that position. I don’t know whether she resigned her position when she started working for Human Rights Watch; if she didn’t, it was a clear conflict of interest. Regardless, it should hardly come as a surprise that one of her first acts at Human Rights Watch was to involve the organization in political action, supporting the campaign to get Caterpillar to stop selling tractors to the Israeli Army.
I’ve also learned that Ms. Whitson is a self-described big fan and admirer of Norman Finkelstein. (Source: Anonymous, but the source provided me with what appears to be airtight documentation). For those not familiar with Finkelstein, imagine a leftist, male version of Ann Coulter who instead of attacking liberals and the liberal establishment, has devoted his career to attacking Israel and the American Jewish establishment. Imagine, though, that this male version of Coulter was a less talented writer, and even more offensive in his description of his adversaries.
Finkelstein’s view of the Arab-Israel conflict manifests itself is such antics as meeting with Hezbollah officials in southern Lebanon and proclaiming “I think that the Hezbollah represents the hope”. His criticism of pro-Israel American Jews tends to be unusually nasty. Thus, he comments that photos of Jewish writers Cynthia Ozick and Ruth Wisse “might induce nightmares.”. He also recklessly or intentionally indulges in rhetoric of the sort that one normally finds on anti-Semitic hate sites like Stormfront. For example, he writes that American Jewish leaders “resemble stereotypes straight out of [Nazi newspaper] Der Sturmer,” and that American “Jewish elites” have “a mindset of Jewish superiority.”
Whitson’s admiration of Finkelstein has survived the fact that he has harshly attacked Human Rights Watch and Whitson when he has deemed them too hard on Israel’s adversaries, or too soft on Israel. By contrast, Whitson has more than once expressed her disdain for HRW’s pro-Israel critics, as when she recently and baselessly accused some of us of racism). The logical conclusion is that Whitson is in broad agreement with Finkelstein’s extremist anti-Israel views, and therefore forgives his occasional hostile outbursts.
In short, Human Rights Watch, while purporting to be a neutral arbiter of human rights issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict, hired as its Middle East director a person who at the time was intimately involved in pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel political action, and who, not surprisingly, appears to have rather strongly held, far left-wing views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Some self-styled Jewish (and non-Jewish) Progressives like Matthew Yglesias, dismiss criticism of HRW as “unsupported accusations of bias” and argue, as far as I can tell on pure faith, that because HRW is a “human rights organization,” it can be trusted on all issues, including Israel. In fact, by hiring someone like Whitson to be Middle East Director (and her deputy director Joe Stork, a supporter of the international boycott campaign against Israel, with an exception for academics) HRW hasn’t even tried to to maintain the appearance of neutrality or objectivity. And, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, HRW’s bias manifests itself quite clearly in its “reporting.”