September 2, 2006
by PHILIP WEISS
For progressives who are even mildly critical of Israel, a never-ending concern is the response of the Jewish community. Generally, Jews are among the biggest backers of liberal causes. But a common refrain from liberal Jews is that Hamas and Hezbollah represent threats to Israel’s very existence, and so conversations about policy take on an emotional and religious character. “There’s a deep schizophrenia in some of the Jewish community, and people who are at the forefront of every single rights issue, from racial justice in the United States to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur–on Israel, it crumbles, and there is all this hand-wringing,” says Sarahleah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. “And everyone [who is critical] is successfully marginalized.”
The struggle for Jewish hearts and minds explains the latest battle in the ideological war over the Middle East: the firestorm over Human Rights Watch’s reports from the Lebanon war. The New York City-based monitor issued a couple-dozen reports during the conflict, some sharply critical of Israel for killing civilians, and has had to fight a rear-guard action to maintain its standing among American Jews.
The leading human rights organization in the world, HRW has a dry and thorough manner that reflects its executive director, lawyer Kenneth Roth, who is given to tweezerlike fact-finding and incisive conclusions, with a moral backbeat. The restrained tone has allowed HRW to grow by half in the past five years and stay firmly in the mainstream. When I asked him if he had a special connection to the New York Times, which frequently cites its reports, Roth quipped, “There’s a phone in the drawer.”
HRW has often been critical of Israel while showing respect for its security concerns. For instance, it has condemned suicide bombing as a war crime and also assailed Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank. On July 12 the Lebanon war began, and soon escalated into a wholesale air attack by Israel on Lebanon (and, yes, a rain of Hezbollah rockets on civilian targets in Israel). HRW’s first critics were the left, which felt HRW was twiddling its thumbs as hundreds died, when it alluded delicately to “potential violations of international humanitarian law” in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. HRW did not issue more forceful statements in the first two weeks of the war, Roth says, because its two researchers couldn’t get into southern Lebanon. Once they got there and spent two days visiting villages, HRW issued a fifty-page report August 3, accusing Israel of war crimes in its “indiscriminate” bombings. The researchers had documented more than a third of the reported civilian deaths at that time and could show that in none of 153 killings were Hezbollah forces or weapons “in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.” HRW alleged a war crime after it visited Qana, the scene of twenty-eight civilian deaths on July 30. There Israeli missiles had hit a three-story house in which people were sheltering. Israeli officials later stated that rocket fire had originated from the village three days before the attack.
HRW’s statements got international news coverage (if only two paragraphs in the Times) but put the group in the cross hairs of the Israel lobby, notably in the New York Sun. The Sun linked Ken Roth with Mel Gibson as an enemy of the Jewish people and said his moral compass was “haywire.” It is tempting to dismiss the four-year-old Sun–whose most memorable contribution to American letters has been its statement that Iraq War protesters were guilty of “treason”–as a right-wing rag. Its backers include Manhattan Institute former chair Roger Hertog and Bruce Kovner, chair of the American Enterprise Institute. But Kovner is also chair of Juilliard, and the Sun is a sophisticated newspaper, with extensive arts and sports coverage. As managing editor Ira Stoll says, the Sun has influence; it represents the views of organized Jewish leaders. Among the Sun’s readers, says Stoll, are some of HRW’s biggest financial backers. Indeed, in an editorial the Sun said that Robert Bernstein, HRW’s former chair, was having “private agonies” over the group’s reports and quoted Morton Zuckerman, listed as a donor of between $25,000 and $99,000 in HRW’s 2005 report, as saying the reports on Israel were an “outrage…. Human Rights Watch has lost all moral credibility.”
Roth responded to every attack the Sun printed. In one letter he spoke of Israeli “slaughter” and wrote, “An eye for an eye–or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye–may have been the morality of some more primitive moment.” The comment was echoed in smears. The Sun printed a piece by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League saying that criticisms of the Bible are a classic anti-Semitic stereotype, a diagnosis of Roth’s motivation that Stoll says he shares. “In my view unfortunately and dangerously, it’s increasingly respectable in mainstream circles to engage in old style anti-Jewish stereotypes,” says Stoll. (It seems Roth’s personal history–he went into human rights law in part because as a boy he had listened to his father’s stories of escaping Nazi Germany–is sinister camouflage.)
The Jerusalem Post and New York Daily News soon piled on. Never one to miss the limelight, so did Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who wrote on the Huffington Post that HRW had invented facts. Dershowitz then invoked Jewish solidarity: “Within the last month, virtually every component of the organized Jewish community, from secular to religious, liberal to conservative, has condemned Human Rights Watch for its bias.”
Roth says that HRW was isolated in its role as Israel critic in part because the prospect of the sort of vitriol he faced has scared other groups away from even looking at the Middle East. HRW emergency director Peter Bouckaert explains, “We always get attacked for our findings by the government involved. What makes this case different is, it’s not the government, it’s the external lobby. We have a difficult but positive dialogue with the Israeli government and the IDF. They don’t dismiss us as morally repugnant or irrelevant. They take our findings seriously. The attacks are not about the facts, they’re about insulating Israel from any type of criticism.”
Bouckaert says the attacks represent a real threat to HRW. “All we have is our reputation for credibility and impartiality. We have a lot of Jewish donors and funders, and I think Ken wants to be sure they don’t think of us as not impartial.”
At the height of the criticism, HRW organized a conference call with Bouckaert and two other researchers who were on the ground in the Middle East and members of the HRW board, to explain their methods. “They made it clear that they understood the political sensitivities and were bending over backward to be impartial,” says Michael Gellert, an HRW board member. So much bending over backward can give a fact-finder a backache. Bouckaert says that Israel is “an emotionally upsetting place to work” because while he sometimes feels outrage at Israeli actions, he is compelled to report publicly in the most careful and balanced terms. That pressure grinds researchers down. They leave or avoid the subject, which is the aim of the critics. “We’re one of the last ones standing in the mainstream,” says Whitson.
Remaining in the mainstream is vital to HRW. While Roth stuck to his guns on Israel’s “indiscriminate” bombings, and the organization repeatedly condemned Israel’s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas, it also seemed to go out of its way toward the end of the war to blast both sides. The chariness alienated the international left. Roel Bramer, a Dutch-Canadian, resigned from the board of the Toronto chapter of HRW in August, saying its criticism of Israel was too tepid. In a resignation letter, Bramer wrote, “Ken [Roth] is quoted as stating that we abide by a ‘fact/research-based application of international human rights and humanitarian law'” and criticize governments on human rights grounds, not political ones. “I feel that HRW should protest boldly and loudly against this borderline genocide and the calamitous rubble and grief Israel has left behind.”
Roth does not appear to be too worried about his credibility on the left. He is much more concerned about the right, even if that means fielding arguments about whether the Bible is primitive. One board member, Shibley Telhami, an Arab-American who is sometimes enraged by Israel’s actions, says engaging the pro-Israel community is vital to the organization’s mission, and his own. “The New York Sun is framing HRW in a context that resonates with a community that’s much broader…. What you have here is Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, within the American political mainstream, not just the Jewish groups, saying that this is about Israel’s right to defend itself and let them finish the job. But you’ve got to connect, so you think, What is the best mix of effectiveness, credibility and principle? I struggle with that every day.”