Birnbaum on Human Rights Watch and Israel

Benjamin Birnbaum’s investigative piece for The New Republic on Human Rights Watch and Israel is now up. The piece mentions, but does not dwell on, the various scandals that engulfed HRW last year—the fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia in which HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson invoked the organization’s hostility to Israel and the “pro-Israel lobby”; reports that deputy director Joe Stork’s prior “human rights” background primarily consisted of editing and writing for a radical left, anti-Israel publication; and the revelation that HRW military analyst Marc Garlasco was an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia.

Instead, the piece focuses on the longstanding conflicts within HRW regarding its Israel-related activities that eventually led founder Richard Bernstein to denounce HRW in an op-ed in the New York Times last Fall.

Much of the piece will be of great interest to both donors and critics of HRW, but will strike those without a deep interest in HRW as so much inside baseball. Nevertheless, there are several newsworthy nuggets within the article:

(1) Whitson’s hostility to Israel. Birnbaum quotes an anonymous insider for what should by now be obvious: she “has no sympathy for the Israeli side” and “has a lot of personal identification [fwiw, her Armenian mother was born in East Jerusalem] with the Palestinian cause.” Birnbaum backs this up with a few telling quotes from Whitson.

(a) Whitson recently professed HRW’s neutrality on the Hamas-Israel conflict to a Moroccan newspaper. But then she added, “Of course, no one can deny that the pain and destruction that Israel causes cannot be compared to what Hamas is doing.” A more objective observer might point that whatever “pain and destruction” Israel is leveling on Gaza is itself Hamas’s fault, because Hamas has chosen to live in a state of war with Israel, whereas Israel would be happy to leave Hamas and Gaza alone if Hamas would cease inflicting missiles on southern Israel.

(b) Why does Whitson seem to only hire staffers who have an anti-Israel activist background? “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,” she 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.” Apparently, no one ever applies for an HRW job who has determined that the Palestinian Authority terrorist kleptocracy and the Hamas Gaza terrorist theocracy engage in a “lot of abuses.”

(c) There is perhaps no American anti-Israel activist who is more poisonous to anyone with the least bit of sympathy for Israel than avowed Hezbollah supporter Norman Finkelstein. As I’ve described him before: 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. Whitson’s verdict: Finkelstein has a “brilliant mind and a generous spirit” [!!!!!!] and “I continue to have tremendous respect and admiration for him.”

(d) Whitson’s office has a poster for “Paradise Now,” the film that attempts to humanize (and perhaps create sympathy for) Palestinian suicide bombers. Deliberately murdering civilians is hardly compatible with any accepted notion of human rights, making Whitson’s choice for office decoration rather remarkable, kind of like Abe Foxman having a poster of a Leni Riefenstahl film in his office.

(2) Also of interest is HRW head Ken Roth’s and Whitson’s reactions when Birnbaum asked Roth why HRW has refused to condemn Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe out Israel as an incitement to genocide, a violation of international law. Roth first quibbled over whether Ahmadinejad has been misquoted [Says Elder of Ziyon: “This from the same person who misquoted Israeli leaders specifically to support his specious assertions that Israel intended to indiscriminately kill civilians in Gaza!”], and then dismissed his rhetoric as a mere “military threat” of the sort that HRW does not address. Whitson then chimed in that Hillary Clinton made a “very similar statement” around the same time “saying that the Iranian regime should be wiped off the map.” In fact, what Clinton said was that if Iran were to foolishly attack Israel, “we would be able to totally obliterate them.” But in Whitson’s mind, Ahmadinejad’s constant threats to annihilate Israel are equivalent to Clinton’s warning that the U.S. would massively retaliate if Iran tried to do so. [Also of note: Clinton made her statement when she was a presidential candidate, Ahmadinejad as a head of state.]

(3) Meanwhile, Garlasco, the Nazi memorabilia collector, gets some sympathy from Birnbaum, who finds that he was perhaps the HRW staffer most sympathetic to Israel and the dilemmas it faced it trying to balance human rights concerns with fighting terrorism. Garlasco apparently believed that the HRW’s Middle East division was hostage to left-wing ideologues who went out of their way to report any evidence gathered to be as hostile as possible to Israel.

“When he reported on Georgia, his firm feeling was he could report whatever he wanted,” says one source close to Garlasco. “And, when he was talking to headquarters, the feeling was, let the chips fall where they may. He did not feel that way dealing with the Middle East division.” In addition, Garlasco alleged in conversations with multiple people that HRW officials in New York did not understand how fighting actually looked from the ground and that they had unrealistic expectations for how wars could be fought. To Garlasco, the reality of war was far more complicated. “He looks at that organization as one big attempt to outlaw warfare,” says the person close to Garlasco.

Indeed, Birnbaum reports that Garlasco was actively seeking alternate employment, more honest work one might say, when the Nazi story broke. I take it that Birnbaum is not surprised that Garlasco has been terminated for his strange hobby, but the overtly anti-Israel Whitson and Stork are still in charge.

(4)

Robert James—a businessman, World War II veteran, and member of the MENA advisory committee who has been involved with HRW almost since its inception—calls the group “the greatest NGO since the Red Cross,” but argues that it is chronically incapable of introspection. “Bob is bringing this issue up on Israel,” he says. “But Human Rights Watch has a more basic problem. … They cannot take criticism.”

In short, the Birnbaum story largely reinforces what was already well-known: HRW’s Middle East division is run by individuals who purport to be human rights activists with no political agenda, but who are in fact far-left wing anti-Israel ideologues who are extremely intolerant of any criticism from within or without the organization.