Anatomy of a smear campaign: Human Rights Watch under attack

The Wall Street Journal, the Israeli government and its supporters attacked Human Rights Watch, alleging that the organization raised funds in Saudi Arabia by promoting its battle with pro-Israeli groups. The accusations appeared to be baseless, instead revealing an increasingly desperate attempt to smear critics of Israel’s conduct.
HRW Ksa israel

BEIRUT, July 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article, entitled “Human Rights Watch Goes to Saudi Arabia; Seeking Saudi Money to Counterbalance ‘Pro-Israel Pressure Groups,’" which alleged that the organization raised money in Saudi Arabia by enticing potential donors with its criticism of Israel and ongoing struggle with pro-Israeli groups. 

The article’s author, David Bernstein, blasted Human Rights Watch for not criticizing Saudi human rights abuses during a trip to the kingdom, contending that HRW singled out Israeli human rights abuses as a means of raising money with potential private donors. “[Sarah Leah] Whitson [director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division] wasn't raising money for human rights,” Bernstein claims, “She was raising money for HRW's propaganda campaign against Israel.”

Bernstein writes, “The point […] is not that HRW is pro-Saudi, but that it is maniacally anti-Israel. The most recent manifestation is that its officers see nothing unseemly about raising funds among the elite of one of the most totalitarian nations on earth, with a pitch about how the money is needed to fight "pro-Israel forces," without the need to discuss any of the Saudis' manifold human rights violations, and without apparent concern that becoming dependent on funds emanating from a brutal dictatorship leaves you vulnerable to that brutal dictatorship later cutting off the flow of funds, if you don't "behave."

Whitson responded immediately in the Wall Street Journal’s comments section, refuting any such claims. “We did indeed spend much of the time in serious discussion about Saudi violations, including its troubled justice system and the lack of women’s rights, as well as our work in the region, including Israel,” Whitson wrote.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, she explained that the event in Riyadh had not been a fundraiser at all, but rather a private dinner hosted by prominent businessman and intellectual, Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan, “which included business leaders, civil society leaders, and well-connected Saudis.”

HRW does not accept funds from any governments or government agencies but is funded by individuals and foundations across the world—none of whom can contribute conditional funds to sway the organization’s reporting.

Smear campaign extends

Bernstein’s allegations might have disappeared into the annals of right-wing smear attacks against those who criticize Israel’s conduct, were it not for Jeffrey Goldberg, a pre-eminent journalist and blogger, who also served as a prison guard for the Israeli army during the First Intifada (1987-1991).

Goldberg, who famously described Stephan Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book “The Israel Lobby” as anti-Semitic, and compared its thesis to Bin Laden’s ideology, later posted a tit-for-tat email exchange with HRW director Ken Roth on his blog, and concluded:

“Another problem here, of course, is that Sarah Leah Whitson, if the allegation against her is to be believed, trafficked in a toxic stereotype about Jews in a country that bans most Jews from even crossing its borders, and whose religious leadership often propogates the crudest expressions of anti-Semitism,” Goldberg wrote.

“The term pro-Israel lobby, of course, means something very different on the Arabian peninsula than it does here. Here, even to critics of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) it means a well-funded, well-oiled political machine designed to protect Israel's interests in Congress. In much of the Arab world, ‘pro-Israel pressure group’ suggests a global conspiracy by Jews to dominate the world politically, culturally and economically.”

Smear tactic coordinated with Israeli government?

The same day the Wall Street Journal piece was posted, Ron Dermer, director of policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office announced, "We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev added, “A human rights organization raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women's rights group asking the Taliban for a donation. If you can fundraise in Saudi Arabia, why not move on to Somalia, Libya and North Korea? For an organization that claims to offer moral direction, it appears that Human Rights Watch has seriously lost its moral compass."

AIPAC, the U.S. lobby followed suit, sending an alert to its supporters about the Wall Street Journal story.

Racist undertone

Underlying these accusations against HRW is a conflation of the Saudi government with its citizens, portraying any Saudis interested in HRW’s work as steeped in an anti-Semitic agenda and eager to indulge conspiracy theories about a nefarious Jewish lobby.

Whitson told MENASSAT that the accusation was, “fundamentally a racist one” and also addressed this in her reply to Bernstein:

“Support from citizens of Arab countries for the work of Human Rights Watch – including our vocal, public criticism of rights violations by their governments – is something to be applauded, not denigrated. Believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too.”

"The ethnic background of our donors is irrelevant to the work we do," Whitson also told Interpress Service (IPS). "It's not relevant to our work in Israel that many, many of our donors are Jewish. And it's not relevant for the work that we do that we get money from Arab countries.

"Should people be criticising us for the fact that much of our support base is made up of Jews?" Whitson asked, adding, "Should that imply that our work on Israel is in fact too soft?"

Post-Gaza: HRW more critical of Israel?

Critics on the left have in the past accused HRW of reporting on violations of human rights and international law, without regard for the political context and power dynamics between occupier and occupied, lending the impression that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between equal forces.

But since the Gaza War in 2009, HRW has been perceived as adopting a harsher tone with Israel, suggesting that the attacks from hardline pro-Israeli groups have increased in tandem. In an interview with MENASSAT, Whitson denied that HRW has changed its tone towards Israel or has become more critical, because the “standards of law haven’t changed.”

Whitson also says that the attacks against HRW have remained consistent throughout its history of reporting on the conflict, as have the patterns of Israeli violations—pointing out “striking parallels” between the 1996 Qana massacre and the 2006 Lebanon war. 

Perhaps the impression that HRW has been more critical of Israeli human rights violations is a result of the increasingly lopsided nature of the conflict, with massive casualties and infrastructure damage resulting exclusively on one side. In addition, the Israeli government has not even made a pretense of seriously investigating accusations of war crimes.

The Israeli army, which absolved itself of any wrongdoing after the Gaza war, contradicts evidence—white phosphorous raining down on populated areas of Gaza, UNRWA schools under attack—that was even broadcast on CNN.  Perhaps the growing impunity and undeniable recklessness with which Israel commits human rights violations has forced its most radical supporters to search for new avenues to attack HRW—hence leading to the fabricated scandal of HRW hitting up Wahhabist anti-Semites for petrodollars.

In a more recent article, Bernstein, the author of the original article in the WSJ, backed off from his original accusation. "[I]f Ms. Whitson did indeed discuss Saudi human rights abuses during her trip, I apologize for suggesting otherwise," wrote Bernstein Wednesday in the comment section of a blog.

Attacks Backfire

Bernstein’s half-hearted apology was perhaps in part prompted by the scrutiny his claims received in the media, including from prominent progressive Jewish bloggers like Matt Yglesias and Daniel Levy.

Yglesias wrote, “As a Jewish progressive, one of the most disturbing elements about Israel’s recent trajectory has been an increasingly tendency by the Israeli government and by hawkish Jewish organizations to respond to criticism of Israel’s human rights record by lashing out against human rights groups.”

Stephen Walt, co-author of the “Israel Lobby” also mentioned the smear campaign on his blog, concluding,  "You know a country is in trouble when it routinely attacks respected human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, or when a group of its own soldiers releases damning personal testimony about their own misconduct in Gaza.”

Within a few short days, the attempt to smear HRW might have backfired. The story was largely picked up and reported as another incident of Israel’s supporters trying to silence any critics.  The underhanded tactics of those who try to silence any criticism of Israel have become a newsworthy item, attracting attention from bloggers and columnists who jumped to Human Rights Watch’s defense.

Ironically, the conduct of these hardline Israel supporters—who denounce any mention of a coordinated strategy against Israel’s critics as anti-Semitic—continues to reinforce the impression that Israel’s critics face intimidation.

In addition, as Whitson points out, Human Rights Watch hardly expected condemnation for its activities in Saudi Arabia from outside the Wahhabist state, to which human rights organizations are granted only infrequent access.

Given how difficult it is for HRW to operate in Saudi and attract supporters to its events, Whitson says, the participants in the Riyadh meeting should be cheered on for working to improve their rights, rather than attacked.