Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by David Bernstein charging that the top Middle East official at Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, went to Saudi Arabia recently and raised money by highlighting battles with "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations." The WSJ report didn’t have much in the way of sourcing — although a Google search turned up this Arab News article which appears to be a primary source — so The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg checked it out. And after a lengthy back and forth with HRW executive director Ken Roth, he concludes that the report is true.
Goldberg starts off skeptical:
This is a serious allegation, and one I found difficult to believe, because Human Rights Watch has always been moderately careful about the optics of its fundraising efforts. The group’s credibility, of course, rests on its neutrality; playing traditional enemies off each other as a way to collect money from one (or both) sides in a conflict seems beyond the pale. (Let’s put aside for now the queasy-making image of a human rights organization venturing into one of the world’s most anti-democratic societies to criticize one of the Middle East’s most democratic states.)
Another problem here, of course, is that Sarah Leah Whitson, if the allegation against her is to be believed, trafficked in a toxic stereotype about Jews in a country that bans most Jews from even crossing its borders, and whose religious leadership often propogates the crudest expressions of anti-Semitism. The term pro-Israel lobby, of course, means something very different on the Arabian peninsula than it does here. Here, even to critics of AIPAC, it means a well-funded, well-oiled political machine designed to protect Israel’s interests in Congress. In much of the Arab world, "pro-Israel pressure group" suggests a global conspiracy by Jews to dominate the world politically, culturally and economically.
I’m not one of the people who believes that Human Rights Watch is reflexively anti-Israel, and I think the group has done admirable work exposing Israel’s human rights violations (and admirable work, of course, exposing human rights violations across the Middle East). But this allegation, if proven true, would cast serious doubt on whether Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division could ever fairly judge Israel again.
Roth responds to Goldberg’s initial e-mail, denying Bernstein’s other charge that Whitson did not confront the Saudis about their own human rights problems, but avoids specifically answering whether HRW used its battles with Israel’s defenders as a money-raising tool. Goldberg follows up twice and gets evasive answers, but the third time finally gets some clarity:
Again, an evasive answer. I wrote back: "That’s not what I’m getting at. I’m simply asking the question, did your staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization’s opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?"
That’s certainly part of the story. We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn’t a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story–part of that pitch–is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.
In other words, yes, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s "supporters," who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.