Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Minority Report

May 31, 2010 | Benjamin Birnbaum

By Benjamin Birnbaum

On October 19 last year, the op-ed page of The New York Times contained a bombshell: a piece by Robert Bernstein, the founder and former chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW), attacking his own organisation. HRW, Bernstein wrote, was “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” The allegation was certainly not new: HRW had been under assault for years by American Jews and other supporters of Israel, who argued that it was biased against the Jewish state. And these attacks had intensified in recent months, with a number of unflattering revelations about the organisation. In July, HRW found itself under fire when a Wall Street Journal op-ed noted that the organisation had solicited donations in Saudi Arabia by trumpeting the criticism it faces from “pro-Israel pressure groups.” In August, the blogosphere leapt on one of the organisation’s top Middle East officials for having once been part of a team that edited a radical anti-Israel journal. And, in September, HRW suspended one of the primary contributors to its reports on the wars in Gaza and Lebanon after his private hobby – collecting Nazi memorabilia – became public.

What few people outside HRW knew, however, was that Bernstein’s op-ed was the culmination of a long struggle inside the organisation that had turned increasingly acrimonious over the years. The debate revolved around a single question: Was the world’s most respected human rights group being fair to Israel? Bob Bernstein wasn’t the only person at Human Rights Watch who thought the answer was no.

In September 2000, HRW’s Board of Directors took a vote that still, a decade later, infuriates Sid Sheinberg, a legendary Hollywood mogul (he discovered Steven Spielberg) and current vice-chairman of the board. At the time, Bill Clinton was trying desperately to broker a peace agreement between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, but one of the major sticking points was the right of return. It was an issue that even the most left-wing Israelis did not feel they could compromise on: If Palestinians were permitted to return to Israel en masse, it would imperil the country’s future as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

Sheinberg believed strongly that HRW had no business endorsing the right of return. “My view is that the most essential human right is the right to life,” he says. “And anybody who sees a deal about to be made where there’s been war for 50 or 60 years should think hard about shutting up.” The board, however, did not agree. “The vote was something like twenty-seven to one,” Sheinberg recalls. That December, Ken Roth, HRW’s Executive Director, would send letters to Clinton, Arafat, and Barak urging them to accept the organisation’s position. The right of return, he wrote, “is a right that persists even when sovereignty over the territory is contested or has changed hands.”

But something telling happened to Sheinberg immediately following the meeting in September. “I go to my apartment – I have an apartment in New York – and, when I get to my apartment, the phone starts to ring,” he recalls. “And I get a number of phone calls from a variety of board members who tell me, ‘Sid, we really agree with you… but we didn’t want to go against management.’” Another board member, David Brown, confirms that he and others shared Sheinberg’s reservations, if quietly.

These tensions would fester within HRW in the years to come. “There are more people that have a concern about this on the board than the people who don’t have a concern about this think there are,” Sheinberg says. “I’m not the only one who’s concerned about this. And, by the way, it also includes certain staff members.”

Human Rights Watch was a product of the Cold War. During the 1970s, Bernstein – who was president and chairman of Random House – had become interested in the plight of Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky. In 1978, three years after the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords (which included language on human rights), Bernstein established Helsinki Watch, a group dedicated to monitoring human rights violations behind the Iron Curtain. In 1981, Helsinki Watch was joined by Americas Watch, which sought to expose the abuses of Latin American dictators. Helsinki Watch and Americas Watch would become just two stars in a constellation of regional “watch committees,” all brought under the Human Rights Watch umbrella in 1988. By the time Bernstein stepped down as chairman a decade later – he is now founding chairman emeritus – HRW had become a major force in international politics. Today, the group has a budget of US$44 million, conducts research on about 90 countries, and churns out dozens of reports per year.

Bernstein – now a gregarious octogenarian – had always considered himself a friend of Israel but, for a long time, he didn’t follow events there particularly closely. But as the Second Intifada erupted, following the failure of the Oslo process, Bernstein began paying closer attention to HRW’s work on Israel. And he didn’t like what he was seeing.

With Palestinian suicide bombings reaching a crescendo in early 2002, precipitating a full-scale Israeli counterterrorist campaign across the West Bank, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division (MENA) issued two reports (and myriad press releases) on Israeli misconduct – including one on the Israel Defence Forces’ assault on terrorist safe havens in the Jenin refugee camp. That report – which, to HRW’s credit, debunked the widespread myth that Israel had carried out a massacre – nevertheless said there was “strong prima facie evidence” that Israel had “committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” irking the country’s supporters, who argued that the IDF had in fact gone to great lengths to spare Palestinian civilians. (The decision not to launch an aerial bombardment of the densely populated area, and to dispatch ground troops into labyrinthine warrens instead, cost 23 Israeli soldiers their lives – crucial context that HRW ignored.) It would take another five months for HRW to release a report on Palestinian suicide bombings – and another five years for it to publish a report addressing the firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza, despite the fact that, by 2003, hundreds had been launched from the territory into Israel. (HRW did issue earlier press releases on both subjects.)

In the years to come, critics would accuse HRW of giving disproportionate attention to Israeli misdeeds. According to HRW’s own count, since 2000, MENA has devoted more reports to abuses by Israel than to abuses by all but two other countries, Iraq and Egypt. That’s more reports than those on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Algeria, and other regional dictatorships. And, if you count only full reports – as opposed to “briefing papers,” “backgrounders,” and other documents that tend to be shorter, less authoritative, and therefore less influential – the focus on the Jewish state only increases, with Israel either leading or close to leading the tally. There are roughly as many reports on Israel as on Iran, Syria, and Libya combined.

HRW officials acknowledge that a number of factors beyond the enormity of human rights abuses go into deciding how to divide up the organisation’s attentions: access to a given country, possibility for redress, and general interest in the topic. “I think we tend to go where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction,” rues one board member. “We seek the limelight – that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”

Bernstein, however, had started HRW primarily to reach for the high-hanging fruit – closed societies where human rights reporting was lacking. He was not opposed to HRW criticising Israel. But, with the country already host to dozens of well-staffed human rights organisations – not to mention a vibrant free press and an activist Supreme Court that frequently restrained government and military policies – he questioned the wisdom of devoting more attention to the Jewish state than to countries with far worse human rights records and many fewer self-correcting mechanisms. And so, he reached out to someone who could help him look at HRW’s work with fresh eyes. In 2005, he introduced Roth to Steve Apkon, the founder of a non-profit film centre that had hosted the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in recent years. Apkon – a mild-mannered 48-year-old who formerly worked on Wall Street and was an active supporter of Seeds of Peace, a program that seeks to foster friendships between Israeli and Palestinian youth – was invited to serve on MENA’s Advisory Committee, which met every few months. While Apkon had no problem with – indeed, supported – the idea of ferreting out Israeli human rights abuses, he quickly sensed a palpable hostility toward Israel among the HRW brass. He also began to feel that Advisory Committee meetings were not taken seriously by HRW staff. They were “dog-and-pony shows” with “no room for dialogue,” he recalls.

Indeed, despite the tremendous amount of goodwill inside the organisation toward Bernstein personally, he and his allies – who also included Edith Everett, a member of both the MENA Advisory Committee and the HRW Board, and a philanthropist who has donated millions to aid Druze Arabs in Israel – eventually came to believe that their concerns were falling on deaf ears. For Everett, the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was a turning point. “Participating on the board became most difficult since [that war],” she recalls. While Everett agreed with some of HRW’s critiques – on Israel’s use of cluster munitions, for example – she took issue with many of the organisation’s conclusions, including its reporting on human shield use in Lebanon. For a long time, Everett had felt there was a healthy exchange about these issues inside HRW, but that had begun to change. “I felt in recent times there was less of a dialogue,” she says. “It seemed to me that there was a commitment to a point of view – that Israel’s the bad guy here.”

During the third week of the five-week war, the organisation published a report on “Israel’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians.” (A report on Hezbollah rocket fire would not come out for another year, although, again, HRW did issue press releases on the subject in the interim.) The report said there was evidence suggesting that, in some cases, “Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.” Critics, such as Alan Dershowitz and Bar-Ilan University Professor Avi Bell, jumped on the report and related documents, arguing that some of their assertions were highly questionable. HRW ceded no ground, accusing Dershowitz and Bell of “armchair obfuscations.” But, when it issued its more comprehensive report on Lebanese fatalities a year later, the organisation admitted that the first report had indeed gotten key facts wrong. For example, an Israeli strike in the village of Srifa – the second-deadliest attack described in the first report – turned out to have killed not “an estimated 26 civilians” (as HRW had originally claimed) or “as many as 42 civilians” (as Roth later wrote), but 17 combatants and five civilians.

Elsewhere in the new report, HRW acknowledged that the original had missed mitigating factors that cast some Israeli strikes in a different light.

Recent disputes over Israel inside HRW have frequently involved Sarah Leah Whitson, the 43-year-old Director of MENA (and one of the officials who made the controversial fundraising appearance in Saudi Arabia). Raised by a mother who had been born in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, Whitson spent summers as a child with family in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, later studying abroad in Egypt. Following law school, she became a corporate attorney but pursued activism on the side, volunteering for, among other groups, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (where she was co-organiser of a delegation in 2002 that lobbied Kofi Annan to press ahead with a UN investigation of Israel’s Jenin operation). As I stepped into her office for an interview in February, I noticed that a poster for “Paradise Now”, a movie that attempts to humanise Palestinian suicide bombers, hangs on her door and that two photos of bereaved Gazans hang on her wall.

To Whitson’s credit, under her leadership, MENA has avoided laying the Palestinian plight entirely at the feet of Israel (the past few years have seen reports on abuses of Palestinians in Iraq and Jordan, not to mention Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza). Moreover, during her tenure, MENA has expanded the number of nations that it tracks.

“She was the first person who actually ran that division competently,” says someone who has worked with Whitson. “Things in that division came together under her. Very energetic and committed.” But, on the region’s most politicised conflict, Whitson’s allegiances seem clear. “She definitely has no sympathy for the Israeli side,” this person told me. “And she does, I think, have a lot of personal identification with the Palestinian cause.”

A hint of these inclinations surfaced in a January interview with a Moroccan newspaper. On the one hand, Whitson parroted the HRW mantra of neutrality in war. “We are not with this side or that side,” she said. “We are on the side of civilians on both sides of the conflict. We say that Israel is wrong when it targets Palestinian civilians and that Hamas is wrong when it targets Israeli civilians.” But she added, “Of course, no one can deny that the pain and destruction that Israel causes cannot be compared to what Hamas is doing.”

Critics have pointed out that a number of Whitson’s colleagues in MENA – such as Joe Stork, who came to HRW after decades as a leader of the left-wing Middle East Research and Information Project, where he was part of an editorial collective that ran an extremely anti-Israel journal – arrived at the organisation with backgrounds in the pro-Palestinian movement. Sid Sheinberg argues that the mere appearance of a biased jury at MENA ill-serves HRW. “Is it smart to have a number of people about which questions can be asked – in either direction?” he says. But, when I asked Whitson about this critique – and, specifically, about a former researcher on Israel who, before starting at HRW, wrote pro-Palestinian dispatches from the West Bank and Gaza describing Israeli soldiers as “protected by arrogance and hatred and a state and an army and the world’s superpower” – she said she didn’t see a problem with this situation. “For people who apply for jobs to be the researcher in Israel-Palestine, it’s probably going to be someone who’s done work on Israel-Palestine with a human rights background,” she explained. “And guess what? People who do work with a human rights background on Israel-Palestine tend to find that there are a lot of Israeli abuses. And they tend to become human rights activists on the issue.”

HRW Program Director Iain Levine, who oversees the organisation’s 16 divisions, acknowledges that people from many divisions – and not just MENA – arrive from “solidarity backgrounds,” but insists that, “when they come to the door of this organisation, they park those things behind.”

Whether or not Whitson has done so, she clearly favours a tough approach toward the Jewish state. She has argued that, far from being too harsh toward Israel, HRW is actually too lenient. “[B]elieve me,” she wrote in an e-mail to a MENA advisory committee member, “on Israel in particular, we are overly cautious and extremely kid-gloved because of the harassment we endure.” Less definitive – but still arguably revealing – evidence about Whitson’s politics can be found in her opinion of Norman Finkelstein, the activist and avowed Hezbollah supporter who has likened Israel to Nazi Germany. The two became acquainted years ago, and she brought him to HRW to discuss his 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah. In late 2006, when Finkelstein launched a letter-writing campaign demanding that HRW officials apologise for a press release critical of Palestinian officials (which they eventually did), one HRW observer e-mailed Whitson to share thoughts on Finkelstein’s over-the-top rhetoric. Whitson replied: “I agree w/ u that… his anger sometimes gets the better of him and his brilliant mind and generous spirit. I continue to have tremendous respect and admiration for him, because as you probably know, making Israeli abuses the focus of one’s life work is a thankless but courageous task that may well end up leaving all of us quite bitter.”

As Bernstein and his allies saw it, Whitson and others in MENA consistently ignored the context of Israeli actions – context that might have created a more accurate picture. That was the overriding complaint in a letter Edith Everett wrote to HRW in June 2008, outlining her dissatisfaction with the way the organisation was treating Israel. HRW had repeatedly called for Israel to lift its blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Everett pointed out that “the original contravention of human rights lies with Hamas and these terrorist organisations and if they were to stop their unprovoked attacks on Israeli civilians there would be no restrictions on the flow of goods into Gaza.”

That month, Bernstein made a presentation at a meeting of the executive committee of HRW’s board. After asking HRW staffers to leave the room, he told the assembled something they already knew – that he had concerns about MENA’s Israel work – and something they did not: “I told them, from then on, they couldn’t assume that I would remain silent to the public.”

Ken Roth was absent from the meeting, but he was furious when he found out. He immediately e-mailed Bernstein’s son Bill, a classmate from Brown, warning that his father would do great harm to the organisation and to his own reputation.

Not everyone at HRW, however, was eager to keep Bernstein in the fold. His persistent questions had become a never-ending source of annoyance to Whitson. “It just came to this point where we would have countless meetings with him explaining things over and over,” Whitson says. “And then, he would just ask the same question as if you’d never had the conversation before.” Her attitude toward Bernstein’s threat was one of indifference. “You’re like, ‘OK, just go public and get it over with.’”

At the time, however, Bernstein was still unsure of himself. He had begun consulting prominent outsiders, among them just war philosopher Michael Walzer and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, a friend of his son Tom. “My advice to him,” Zakaria says, “was that, if he felt as strongly as he did, then he needed to speak out because the impact of the founder of Human Rights Watch talking about his disillusionment with the organisation was going to be far greater than an outsider.”

Bernstein was becoming steadily more frustrated – and two of his closest allies at the organisation were soon on their way out. In early 2009, Whitson informed Steve Apkon that, if he wished to serve another term on the MENA Advisory Committee, he would be expected to make a contribution in the US$10,000 range. Apkon was livid. He dashed off a sharply worded letter to Advisory Committee Chair Shibley Telhami. “An organisation that was founded to protect the most basic of human rights – freedom of speech – seeing it as the canary in the coal mine in regards to everything else, seems to have created within its own organisation a disregard and intolerance for open dialogue,” he wrote. His membership was not renewed. (HRW denies that Apkon’s removal had anything to do with his criticisms, attributing it primarily to his failure to make an acceptable contribution.)

Shortly thereafter, Edith Everett was gone. At a MENA Advisory Committee meeting in March 2009, two months after the war in Gaza, she raised the subject of human shields with HRW senior military analyst Marc Garlasco, who was on hand to discuss the issues he and his fellow researchers were planning to write about: “I said, ‘I hope when you talk about the Palestinians in Gaza that you speak about their use of the population as human shields,’ and he was beginning to respond to that when Sarah Leah Whitson wouldn’t let him speak… She said, ‘Well, in summation, I think we have to move on,’ or something, and I said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ you know?” Everett immediately tendered her resignation from both the HRW Board and the MENA Advisory Committee.

At the end of that month, Bernstein sent a long e-mail to the Board of HRW. “While I realise that HRW is doing a lot of valuable work, to me the mishandling of the Israel-Palestine situation is like a cancer,” he wrote.

Just as the internal dispute over Israel was coming to a head, HRW found itself enmeshed in a bizarre controversy. On Sept. 8, 2009, a pro-Israel blogger named Omri Ceren discovered that Marc Garlasco – one of the HRW staffers who had conducted field research on the Gaza and Lebanon wars – was an avid collector of Nazi paraphernalia. Already under attack from pro-Israel groups, HRW now found itself in a predicament. Initially, the organisation came out swinging in Garlasco’s defence. But, within days, it changed course and suspended Garlasco. Eventually, HRW’s lawyers and his own hammered out a severance agreement, which included a nondisclosure clause. On Feb. 15, he officially resigned.

Steve Apkon was watching the entire episode with regret. Apkon liked Garlasco personally and respected his expertise. He thought that Garlasco – far from being a Nazi fetishist out to demonise Israel – actually had thoughtful views on the Middle East conflict. Both men lived in Pleasantville, New York, and they had gotten to know each other. Back in February 2009, shortly after Garlasco had returned from Gaza, the two met for coffee at the Pleasantville Starbucks. Apkon found what Garlasco had to say striking: Garlasco told him that he had reservations about HRW’s approach to covering warfare, and specifically some of its work on Israel.

Garlasco is a complicated character – a gun-toting, beer-drinking Battlestar Galactica fan with a cloak-and-dagger persona like something out of a spy novel – and his views on HRW were hard to pin down. On the one hand, he publicly endorsed HRW’s reporting on Israel, telling the New Republic, “I stand by every report I ever worked on as a factual representation of the events.” And yet, he also criticised elements of this work to Apkon – and others.

In many ways, Garlasco was an odd fit at HRW. Prior to being hired in 2003, he had served as the head of “high-value targeting” at the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Iraq war. He opposed the invasion however, and joined HRW shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Whitson told me that Garlasco (one of only a handful of people at HRW with military experience) brought unique skills to the organisation and enhanced its credibility. “He could look at the plumes in the sky and know exactly what weapon that was,” she says. “He could look at a canister and know what kind of a munition it was.”

Garlasco was hardly a reflexive apologist for Israel. His time on the ground in Gaza convinced him that the IDF had a lot to answer for – using Palestinians as human shields, heavy artillery fire in densely populated areas, and rules of engagement so lax that large numbers of civilian deaths were inevitable. And he thought that both sides, Hamas and Israel, had committed war crimes during the conflict.

Still, he believed that there was a fog of war that most of his colleagues failed to appreciate. “He said… ‘If I were an Israeli, I’d be so frustrated,’” recalls one friend. “You are trying to get people who are shooting from civilian areas, and how do you deal with that? I mean, I remember him talking about that – that it’s an impossible quandary for a soldier. Sometimes, they actually turn out to be kids playing on the roof, and sometimes they’re guys with missiles.”

During the war, Garlasco had gotten a lot of attention for discussing Israel’s use of a chemical agent called white phosphorous. CNN, BBC, and al-Jazeera ran segments featuring Garlasco explaining the dangers white phosphorous posed to civilians: On contact with skin, it could cause second- and third-degree burns; it could even burn down houses. Soon, news reports all around the world were repeating the story.

But Garlasco would later tell Apkon and others that he thought the white phosphorous controversy had been blown out of proportion. From his experience at the Pentagon, Garlasco knew that US and British forces had used white phosphorous in Iraq and Afghanistan, and usually for the same purpose that the IDF used it in Gaza: as a smokescreen to obscure troop movements on the ground – a permissible use under international law.

To be sure, Garlasco did not believe that the IDF had used white phosphorous properly in every instance. But he told multiple people that he thought HRW had placed too much emphasis on this issue – specifically telling one person that he had been pushed by HRW headquarters to focus on white phosphorous at the expense of topics he thought more deserving of attention because, he suspected, it was regarded as a headline-generating story. (HRW denies that it pushed Garlasco on the subject.) What’s more, while making legal judgments was not within Garlasco’s jurisdiction, he told Apkon that he did not think Israel’s use of white phosphorous amounted to a war crime. (HRW would say that evidence “indicates the commission of war crimes.”)

Beyond these disagreements, Garlasco had larger critiques of HRW. He thought that the organisation had a habit of ignoring necessary context when covering war, he told Apkon; and he told multiple sources that he thought Whitson and others at MENA had far-left political views. As someone who didn’t have strong ideological commitments of his own on the Middle East, this bothered him. “When he reported on Georgia, his firm feeling was he could report whatever he wanted,” says one source close to Garlasco. “He did not feel that way dealing with the Middle East division.”

In addition, Garlasco alleged in conversations with multiple people that HRW officials in New York did not understand how fighting actually looked from the ground and that they had unrealistic expectations for how wars could be fought. “He looks at that organisation as one big attempt to outlaw warfare,” says the person close to Garlasco.

In April, Bernstein made his case one last time at a board meeting, but, by this point, it was clear that he was not going to prevail. Six months later, he finally published his op-ed. The reaction from HRW was defensive; in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Times, the current and past chairs of the HRW Board accused Bernstein of arguing “that Israel should be judged by a different human rights standard than the rest of the world” – something he had never said and clearly does not believe.

I visited Bernstein in his Park Avenue office, to which he still takes a taxi every morning. Going public with his criticisms, he said during our interview, “was a very hard thing for me to do.” It has ruptured friendships, not to mention his ties to an organisation whose history is very much wrapped up in his own.

Yet, as difficult as it was to go public, Bernstein does not believe that Human Rights Watch left him with much choice. “They think they’ve heard me out,” he says. “You see, they think they’ve listened to me until they can’t listen anymore. Actually, they haven’t listened at all.”

Benjamin Birnbaum is a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. © New Republic, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. An unedited version of this story is available at



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