Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein takes to the New York Times’ op-ed page to accuse his former organization of “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.
That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West.
I agree that it’s sometimes, though not always, useful when criticizing human rights violations to make a distinction between democratic and nondemocratic societies. At best, however, this only provides some benefit of the doubt to democratic societies — it doesn’t provide a “Get Out Of Geneva Conventions Free” card. And I’m not sure how or whether this distinction should apply to the territories that Israel has held under military occupation since 1967.
For Palestinians living in the West Bank, almost every movement — to school, to work, to visit friends or family — is circumscribed by the arbitrary decisions of Israeli military rule. Attempts by Palestinians to challenge and correct Israeli abuses through the legal system, in the rare cases that they actually see the inside of a courtroom, and the even rarer cases that they are actually successful, are often then simply ignored by Israeli occupation authorities. Non-violent protests are violently suppressed. (And, of course, life in the West Bank is a vacation compared to life in Gaza, which is maintained by Israel as the world’s largest prison.)
If we’re to draw a hard line between free and authoritarian societies, then, Israeli-occupied Palestine clearly belongs on the authoritarian side of that line. Israel could begin to solve this problem by ending its occupation, withdrawing from the settlements, and cooperating with U.S. efforts to achieve a two-state solution, but Netanyahu has apparently decided that a better strategy is to continue the occupation, increase the settlements, and attack Israel’s critics as anti-Semites and self-hating Jews.
Bernstein continues that, compared to Israel, “Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent.”
The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.
This is a powerful claim, and it would good if Bernstein offered some data to support it. But he didn’t, because it’s not true. A 2005 report in The Forward determined that “Human Rights Watch has in fact devoted more attention to each of five other nations in the region — Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, Turkey and Iran — than to Israel.” A look at HRW’s website reveals that the organization has in fact prepared “report after report” on countries throughout the Middle East, everything from freedom of association in Morocco to Kurdish rights in Iran. Of the five reports this year that dealt with the Israel-Palestine conflict, all five focused on the Gaza war — understandable, given the serious regional implications of the event — and two of those specifically focused on and criticized Palestinian actions.
Obviously, criticism coming from Robert Bernstein carries a lot more weight than smears from the likes of Gerald Steinberg or David Bernstein. Unfortunately, his criticism traffics in the same unsubstantiated — and unfalsifiable — assertions of bias, and the actual claims he does, like theirs, make don’t really withstand scrutiny.
It is true, as Bernstein notes, that Israel has numerous domestic human rights organizations. But what he doesn’t mention is that many, if not most of them have come to the exact same conclusion as their international counterparts: The Israeli assault on Gaza was rife with abuses and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Noting these allegations does nothing to excuse or diminish Hamas’ behavior, nor the behavior of authoritarian regimes throughout the region. But rather than investigate these allegations, as the United States has repeatedly encouraged it to do, the Netanyahu government has instead chosen to declare war on human rights NGOs. It’s unfortunate that Bernstein should now make himself part of that effort.