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Former Human Rights Watch Prez: Enough With the Israel Obsession

I don't know how I missed this, and I really don't know how Marty missed this, but it seems pretty significant that Robert Bernstein, the former president of Human Rights Watch, had an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times accusing his former organization of anti-Israel bias:

When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East. The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.

Human Rights Watch has a not-terribly-persuasive response:

Human Rights Watch does not devote more time and energy to Israel than to other countries in the region, or in the world. We've produced more than 1,700 reports, letters, news releases, and other commentaries on the Middle East and North Africa since January 2000, and the vast majority of these were about countries other than Israel. Furthermore, our Middle East division is only one of 16 research programs at Human Rights Watch. The work on Israel is a tiny fraction of Human Rights Watch's work as a whole.

Hmm. Bernstein says that HRW has written more condemnations of Israel for violating international law than of any other country. HRW replies that the vast majority of its reports are about countries other than Israel. That's not an answer. It's possible for Israel to be the number one target of HRW and for most HRW reports to be about countries other than Israel. There are, after all, a lot of countries in the world.

Israel supporters have been complaining about Human Rights Watch for a long time. The typical response from HRW defenders is to dismiss criticisms as overheated whining from reflexive partisans of Israel (which, to be sure, it sometimes is.) This, from Rosa Brooks, is a typical example:

Anyone familiar with Human Rights Watch -- or with Roth -- knows this to be lunacy. Human Rights Watch is nonpartisan -- it doesn't "take sides" in conflicts.

It may not take sides, but it makes decisions about what's important and what to focus on. Its intense focus on Israel -- a democracy with numerous active and influential human rights organizations in a sea of dictatorships that have nothing of the sort -- is a political choice, not just some "nonpartisan" reflection of reality. Dismissing all criticism of that choice as axe-grinding by rabid neocons is not going to be as easy after the group's former president has joined in.