Daniel Levy apologizes for HRW-UPDATED


Over at Huffington Post, Daniel Levy publishes a screed against screeds against Human Rights Watch.

HRW is under fire, essentially, because a senior staffer not only bashed Israel to fund-raise among Saudis, she invoked odious tropes about Jewish power in order to do so. Jeffrey Goldberg, who has done the best journalism on this, puts it most succinctly:

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.

If anyone doubts that interpretation, listen to Ken Roth, HRW’s executive director, fielding Goldberg’s direct 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.

Elsewhere, Goldberg calls this "tacky." That’s polite. The generalized and apriori smearing of any criticism as "lies and deception" and "lies and obfuscation" is worthy, I dunno, of the kind of stand up guy who runs Belarus.

Levy, whom I otherwise like and respect, skates over this by noting that — and yes, it’s true, I got the same emails Levy alludes to — much of the criticism of HRW is fueled by a coalition of unhappy campers who will go to any lengths to delegitimate any criticism of Israel.

Much, but not all, and that does not get Sarah Leah Whitson, the HRW staffer who attended this suspect tea party, off the hook. I’m not sure how the refusal to brook legitimate criticism on one side justifies, well, a refusal to brook legitimate criticism on the other. And Whitson’s willingness to slam the Saudis when there are no Saudis present doesn’t make it better.

(Before I continue, let me get one other minor dig in at poor Daniel, who doesn’t need me to complicate his life, but still: He calls Natan Sharansky a former refusenik. I met Daniel when he chaired the Wold Union of Jewish Students and he should know that Sharansky is more accurately described as a former prisoner of Zion.)

But, anyhoo, my further problem with HRW. Much of this has to do with transparency, a value one would think HRW would treasure. Not only that, but in his exchange with Goldberg, Roth kvetches that David Bernstein, the journalist who first brought this complaint, failed to check with him first.

JTA has covered, in the past, Human Rights First’s work tracking hate crimes. One of my thousands of backburner projects has been to figure out why the two other major human rights watchdogs, Amnesty International and HRW, don’t track such crimes.

There are a range of possible answers: Whom to hold accountable for such crimes, the lack of a uniform system for measuring the intensity of the crimes, the belief that government oppression poses a far greater threat than outburst of "freelance" crimes of bias, the perception among some on the left that the reporting of anti-Semitism hinders efforts to expose allegations of Israeli brutality.

Yes, the last supposition is the most explosive, but I’m not making it up — it’s out there. There’s a perception, most notably peddled by the likes of Norman Finkelstein, that complaints of anti-Semitism deliberately obfuscate Israeli atrocities. Bias against Jews in the 21st century most routinely is manifested through hate crimes; That makes it legitimate to ask AI and HRW why they ignore the phenomenon.

I’ve tried. On two separate occasions, I’ve put repeated calls into both organizations for comment. Both times, I never got a response. Not a "we’d prefer not co comment," but, simply, no response, no call-back despite repeated calls.

Meaning no story. And no accountability.

HRW needs to cast a spotlight on its own practices.

UPDATE: Daniel wrote in with two fair points:

I still don’t see that the main claim has been substantiated: namely, that Whitson was focusing her pitch around accusations of  Israel-lobby activity and feeding stereotypes that exist in the Saudi Kingdom.

It’s true that nothing suggests that this was the main thrust of Whitson’s pitch. I didn’t say it was, but because I have made it my focus, I should have been clear that it was not hers. I still think it is appalling that she raised the "lobby" at all.

His second point is also substantive:

I think there is a substantive debate here:  namely, that the attacks on HRW over this issue are part of the world that HRW operates in, and are part of the reality of dealing with this issue — and that atmosphere is not something HRW created, but rather something created by the right-wing, ‘Israel can do no wrong’ echo chamber.  And I would argue that the blame resides primarily with them, and not with HRW.

It’s true that groups like NGO Monitor started this fight through specious reporting — Uri has dealt at greater length with NGO Monitor’s tendencies to fudge, and God knows, those of us who cover this conflict spend way too much time keeping at bay the "change the subject" crowd.  I think Daniel is right that this is the bigger picture, and he is right to remind us that it is the bigger picture.

But my point still stands: Other targets of HRW and other human rights groups respond not just with obfuscations, but with actual persecution of field workers. Would HRW fund-raise among white racists by trading in stereotypes of African brutality in describing its efforts in Zimbabwe? If Whitson raised funds among ultranationalists in Roman Catholic Zagreb by citing Russian government violations of human rights — and then made a passing reference to the "threat" of Eastern Orthodox "hegemony" — how long would she last?

Human rights monitoring in Zimbabwe and in Chechnya (to name just two places) involves risking one’s life, not merely one’s political reputation. Why is it only the latter risk that drives HRW to stereotyping?


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