Sneak attack on Human Rights Watch

Scott MacLeod has covered the Middle East for Time magazine since 1995.

As a founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert L. Bernstein is a distinguished moral voice. So he stunned the human rights community last week when he leveled a devastating attack on the work of the organization he also chaired for two decades. He accused Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division of giving Israel the “brunt” of its criticism while it “ignored” other countries in the region. The powerful denunciation in a New York Times Op-Ed article was swiftly endorsed by other eminent figures, including Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel.

Bernstein is mistaken. His attack displayed a disregard for the facts as well as a flawed perspective. He undermines Human Rights Watch’s honorable and courageous work. He also undermines something even more vital at this moment: a healthy discussion in the United States about the Middle East.

Bernstein’s wrath seems to have been stirred by Human Rights Watch’s critical reports on Israel’s military incursion against Hamas in Gaza last December and January, which left more than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. He is understandably apprehensive that such condemnations help “those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

At the outset of his Op-Ed article, Bernstein floated the notion that Israel should not be subject to scrutiny because it is a self-monitoring, open, democratic society. Would Bernstein reasonably argue that Human Rights Watch had no business reporting on human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib prison committed by the U.S.? Bernstein says that when Human Rights Watch was founded, the group saw its mission as prying open closed societies. But the organization has long acknowledged that human rights are universal and all societies are capable of violating them.


Bernstein is just plain wrong that the organization’s Middle East program focuses on Israel’s alleged human rights violations while ignoring those committed by Arab governments and the Iranian regime. Even a quick glance at Human Rights Watch’s website, where recent reports are posted, shows that the majority of those on the Middle East relate to countries other than Israel. According to Human Rights Watch, it has produced 1,776 total documents on the Middle East since 2000 -- 250, or 14%, of which were devoted to Israel.

Bernstein describes a Middle East “populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records,” most of which “remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent.” Without excusing any of them, the reality is not so simple.

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, for example, is hardly Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the Saudi ruling family cannot be equated with the Taliban either. When it comes to Israel, Mubarak has maintained the 1979 peace treaty throughout his 28 years in power; Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah sponsored the 2002 peace initiative proposing a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace accord.

Bernstein argues that the militancy of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah “continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve.” He does not mention the role that Israel’s long military occupation of Palestinian lands has also played in perpetuating Palestinian misery.


Bernstein shouts alarm over the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah receive support from the Tehran regime, which he asserts has “openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere.” Not to sidestep the appalling behavior of any of the three, but the reality is more complicated. Hamas and Hezbollah are not Iranian puppets. Each has genuine and substantial popular support within their constituencies and throughout the Middle East -- popularity, incidentally, that is the result of fighting Israeli occupation.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s infamous assertion in 2005 that the “occupying regime” in Israel should be “wiped off the map” did not call for the annihilation of Jews in Israel or anywhere else. Iran itself is home to about 25,000 Jews who are determined to remain there. Ahmadinejad’s threat can reasonably be ascribed to rhetorical bombast more than to plans for another Holocaust.

Israel’s politicians are not strangers to coarse discourse. The current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, reportedly once advocated the bombing of the Aswan Dam in the event of war with Egypt, a catastrophic event that could kill millions of people.

Something that will help bring peace, stability and normalcy to the Middle East is a determined, good-faith effort by the United States to play an effective diplomatic role. President Obama has pledged an effort to resolve the region’s disputes through diplomacy rather than by force. Addressing such huge challenges as ending the 61-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons urgently requires an honest and open discussion about the Middle East -- within the Obama administration and Congress and among America’s influential intellectual elite.


In that discussion, Israel’s policies and actions cannot be shielded from scrutiny by an organization such as Human Rights Watch, nor should those of any other party. The debate should include the question of Israel’s military operations, such as in Lebanon in 2006 and more recently in Gaza (and, theoretically, against Iran in the future).

But, more important, the discussion pertaining to Israel must also deal with the basic issues that are the most painful ones for Israelis. Those include the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, ending Israel’s occupation of Arab territories, negotiating the status of Jerusalem and a fair measure of justice for Palestinian refugees.

As a human rights activist and as head of Random House, Bernstein has spent a lifetime working to promote liberty. Unfortunately, his attack on Human Rights Watch helps those who seek to stifle a more open debate on the Middle East.