More on Daniel Levy and Sarah Leah Whitson


David Bernstein, the Wall Street Journal columnist who alerted the world to Human Rights Watch and its invoking of the "lobby" in stumping for Saudi money, challenged me to meet Daniel Levy’s challenge, in his Huffington Post defense of HRW (in bold):

The apparent trigger for this assault on a group that represents the global gold standard in human rights monitoring, analysis, and advocacy, was a visit by HRW’s Middle East-North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, to the Saudi kingdom. I happened to find myself on a panel at The Century Foundation discussing the Middle East with Whitson just days before this storm broke — I went back and watched tapes of that panel discussion. To accuse Whitson of being soft on the Saudis or somehow singling out Israel for criticism is quite astonishing as I’m sure you’ll agree if you take ten minutes to listen to her presentation.


The most perfunctory fact-checking debunks the claim of HRW having an anti-Israel obsession as being patently absurd. As Ali Gharib of IPS has pointed out, of more than 30 releases in June and July (so far) about the region, Israel was criticized three times, Saudi Arabia five times, and Iran on nine occasions.

And here’s how cuddling up to the Saudis and perhaps even seeking private Saudi money led to self-censorship by Sarah Leah Whitson in her criticism of Saudi Arabia at that TCF event: Whitson attacked the lack of due process in the recent Saudi terror trials. She described Saudi Arabia, along with Syria and Libya, as being on the less free side in terms of "the most basic human rights" violations in the region. She attacked Saudi Arabia’s lack of a penal code, and Whitson had this to say about women’s rights in the kingdom: "Saudi Arabia is the absolute worst. Women are treated as legal minor, as children." Two of HRW’s recent releases are about women’s rights and domestic worker abuses in the kingdom.

Bernstein took the challenge, and here’s what he concluded at the Volokh Conspiracy, where he blogs:

Whitson had a fifteen-minute presentation on human rights in the Middle East. She spends approximately three minutes and thirty-five seconds describing Israel’s alleged violations of international law and human rights. Her presentation of the relevant facts and relevant international law is tendentious in the extreme [Gaza, with not a single Israeli soldier or civilian, is "occupied?" Israel "transferred" its population to the West Bank? Using white phosphorous to illuminate targets violates international law?]. She accuses Israel of apartheid. She consistently refers to the wars in Lebanon and Gaza as "Israel’s wars," even though, obviously, they were fought against foes that were launching cross-border attacks against Israel’s civilian population and which declare themselves to be at war with Israel. She accuses Israel of war crimes, including "indiscriminate" bombing of South Lebanon, which, given the low civilian casualty in the second Lebanon War–even Hezbollah puts the total in the high hundreds, while Israel says low hundreds, out of a population of hundreds of thousands–from a nation with one of the most powerful air forces in the world, is absurd. If Israel had engaged in indiscriminate bombing, casualties would have been in the tens of thousands. I expect foes of Israel to engage in such hyperbole, but Whitson is supposed to be an "objective" human rights advocate.

And after Whitson’s several minute-long exhaustive survey of Israel’s alleged sins, she spends all of approximately twelve seconds on Hamas and Hezbollah, and this is the total of what she said: "of course there are also violations of international humanitarian law by the armed groups that are fighting Israel, namely Hamas and Hezbollah, but of course there are armed groups that have been in conflict with them [sorry this isn’t coherent–ed.]. And that’s something Human Rights Watch has documented." That’s it.

I, then took Bernstein’s challenge challenge and …

It’s worse.

A couple of small caveats: Whitson stops just short of accusing Israel of apartheid; and she says this, which is not said often enough in these fora: Israel’s alleged human rights abuses are "not something that is peculiar to Israel per se, but rather is peculiar to occupation."

That said, Bernstein’s account is about right.

But what’s worse, is Whitson’s most grievous sin: She structures her talk along "on the one hand, on the other hand" lines:

Dividing it up, I would say on the one hand there’s the general absence of the most basic human rights throughout the Arab world and Iran, and on the other hand the big source of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law are the ongoing Israeli occupation of the territories, the Palestinian territories as well as Israel’s wars in the region, not just the most recent in Gaza but of course the prior one in Lebanon.

Five minutes on Iran and the Arab world — what, 23 countries — 3.5 minutes on Israel, and the rest of the time on why the United States should cut off assistance to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. (Odd how HRW can make broad foreign policy recommendations — beyond addressing human rights violations — and yet can’t come to grips with hate crimes.)

Iran has canceled an election. It executes gays. Saudi Arabia infantilizes women and executes adulterers. Egypt jails democrats …

And, on the other hand, there’s Israel.

True, at the event she attended with Daniel, Whitson was rough on the Saudis, as he recounts. But, again, let’s picture Whitson at this Riyadh tea. Let’s say she gave exactly the same presentation, along with her appalling asides on "the Lobby." This is how it goes: Your government is this bad. Israel’s government is (forgive my rough calculations) 20 times as bad. And the Jewish lobby? As an aside — it’s a major pain in the ass.

I don’t know how this is not grotesque.

I know about human rights violations in Israel. (I know because I witnessed some of these, but also because there are piles of indigenous human rights watchdogs — unacknowledged by Whitson, for which Daniel, in the video, commendably chastises her — doing the work that HRW duplicates.)

I know also that there is a machine that engenders hostility to any criticism of Israel.

But I don’t know how, after this, HRW is not fatally compromised when it comes to reporting Israel.

Recommended from JTA