Thursday, April 29, 2010

The New Republic on Human Rights Watch's Jihad

Benjamin Birnbaum writes:
As [Robert] Bernstein and his allies saw it, Whitson and others in MENA consistently ignored the context of Israeli actions—context that might have created a more accurate picture. That was the overriding complaint in a letter Edith Everett wrote to HRW in June 2008, outlining her dissatisfaction with the way the organization was treating Israel. HRW had repeatedly called for Israel to lift its blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Everett pointed out that “the original contravention of human rights lies with Hamas and these terrorist organizations and if they were to stop their unprovoked attacks on Israeli civilians there would be no restrictions on the flow of goods into Gaza.”

That month, Bernstein made a presentation at a meeting of the executive committee of HRW’s board. After asking HRW staffers to leave the room, he told the assembled something they already knew—that he had concerns about MENA’s Israel work—and something they did not: “I told them, from then on, they couldn’t assume that I would remain silent to the public.”

Ken Roth was absent from the meeting—his daughter was graduating from high school that day—but he was furious when he found out. He immediately e-mailed Bernstein’s son Bill, a classmate from Brown, lamenting how unfortunate he found it that a man who had spent his life championing human rights had become an apologist for Israel. He appealed to the younger Bernstein to intervene, warning that his father would do great harm to the organization and to his own reputation.

Not everyone at HRW, however, was eager to keep Bernstein in the fold. His persistent questions had become a never-ending source of annoyance to Whitson. “It just came to this point where we would have countless meetings with him explaining things over and over,” Whitson says. “And then, he would just ask the same question as if you’d never had the conversation before. And you’re like, ‘But did you actually read the report? Did you actually see what it said? Because it answers your question, and we’ve discussed this, like, eighteen times.’” Her attitude toward Bernstein’s threat was one of indifference. “You’re like, ‘OK, just go public and get it over with.’”

At the time, however, Bernstein was still unsure of himself. He had begun consulting prominent outsiders, among them just war philosopher Michael Walzer and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, a friend of his son Tom. Zakaria spoke to Bernstein at length—first in a face-to-face meeting, then in a series of phone calls. Bernstein had already started putting his thoughts to paper—thousands of words’ worth—but felt he was getting nowhere and urged Zakaria to take up the cause instead. Zakaria demurred. “My advice to him,” Zakaria says, “was that, if he felt as strongly as he did, then he needed to speak out because the impact of the founder of Human Rights Watch talking about his disillusionment with the organization was going to be far greater than an outsider who had no historical association with the organization.”

Bernstein also raised some of his concerns with then-HRW board member Richard Goldstone, who would go on to write the U.N.’s much-maligned report on the Gaza war. There are few more reviled figures in Israel right now than Goldstone, but even he sympathized with Bernstein on certain points, such as the politicized nature of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which, after being created in 2006, had directed its first nine condemnations at Israel. In March 2008, barely a year before he accepted UNHRC’s mandate to investigate the Gaza war, he told Bernstein that he thought the body’s performance had been hopeless and expressed ambivalence as to whether HRW should continue appearing before it. He also agreed with Bernstein that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s increasingly aggressive anti-Israel rhetoric, in combination with his threatening policies, was an issue worthy of HRW’s attention. Goldstone pushed Roth to address it, but to no avail. (When I asked Roth in a February interview at his office about HRW’s refusal to take a position on Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel, including his famous call for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” Roth quibbled about the way the statement had been translated in the West—“there was a real question as to whether he actually said that”—then told me that it was not HRW’s place to render judgments on such rhetoric: “Let’s assume it is a military threat. We don’t take on governments’ military threats just as we don’t take on aggression, per se. We look at how they behave. So, we wouldn’t condemn a military threat just as we wouldn’t condemn an invasion—we would look at how the government wages the war.” Whitson, who sat in on the interview, offered her two cents: “You know, that statement was also matched by Hillary Clinton saying that the Iranian regime should be destroyed or wiped off the map. Again, so, very similar statements, side by side, close in time.” For his part, Goldstone told TNR that he eventually came around to the view this was not an issue HRW should take up.)

Bernstein was becoming steadily more frustrated—and two of his closest allies at the organization were soon on their way out. In early 2009, Whitson informed Steve Apkon that, if he wished to serve another term on the MENA advisory committee, he would be expected to make a contribution in the $10,000 range. Apkon was livid. He dashed off a sharply worded letter to advisory committee chair Shibley Telhami. “An organization that was founded to protect the most basic of human rights—freedom of speech—seeing it as the canary in the coal mine in regards to everything else, seems to have created within its own organization a disregard and intolerance for open dialogue,” he wrote. His membership was not renewed. (HRW denies that Apkon’s removal had anything to do with his criticisms, attributing it primarily to his failure to make an acceptable contribution.)

Shortly thereafter, Edith Everett was gone. At a MENA advisory committee meeting in March 2009, two months after the war in Gaza, she raised the subject of human shields with HRW senior military analyst Marc Garlasco, who was on hand to discuss the issues he and his fellow researchers were planning to write about: “I said, ‘I hope when you talk about the Palestinians in Gaza that you speak about their use of the population as human shields,’ and he was beginning to respond to that when Sarah Leah Whitson wouldn’t let him speak. She just put an end to that conversation. She said, ‘Well, in summation, I think we have to move on,’ or something, and I said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ you know?” Everett immediately tendered her resignation from both the HRW board and the MENA advisory committee.

At the end of that month, Bernstein sent a long e-mail to the board of HRW. “While I realize that HRW is doing a lot of valuable work, to me the mishandling of the Israel-Palestine situation is like a cancer,” he wrote. “After my twenty-one years as chair, I still care deeply about the direction of HRW, and my inability to bring change bothers me.”