Conflating regimes with their citizens

In a blog post entitled, "HRW's Whitson Plays the Racism Card," David Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal responded to MENNASAT's article about the Human Rights Watch/Saudi Arabia controversy, refuting claims that his accusations were racially tinged.

BEIRUT, July 29, 2009 (MENASSAT) — On July 15, David Bernstein wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal attacking Human Rights Watch (HRW) for seeking to raise funds in Saudi Arabia.  Bernstein—who was joined by the Israeli government, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other prominent journalists—alleged that HRW emphasized its disagreements with pro-Israel groups as a ploy to raise money from the Saudi elite.

Bernstein wrote: "The point of my post, though, 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 felt 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.'"

Consequently, MENASSAT ran this commentary on the ensuing controversy, and interviewed Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW director for the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region.

On his blog, David Bernstein subsequently responded to the article and interview with Whitson.

"Oh, she [Sarah Leah Whitson] hinted at it before, when she responded to my Wall Street Journal piece by snidely writing, 'believe it or not, some Arabs believe in human rights too,' even though NOTHING in my piece suggested or implied that no Arabs believe in human rights, or, for that matter, that Arabs are inherently less likely to believe in human rights than anyone else. She has told the Beruit-based [sic] news service MENASSAT that my (and others') beef with Human Rights Watch's Saudi Arabian venture is 'fundamentally a racist one.'"

"This just shows how low Whitson will go, and how desperate she has become. Her defense of fundraising through Israel-bashing in Saudi Arabia has fallen flat. […] The one recent video of her that has circulated, before an American audience, where she was likely more restrained then she would be in Saudi Arabia, shows her lambasting Israel for minutes at a time for its alleged human rights violations during its wars with Hezbollah and Hamas, while not managing to identify a single violation by the latter two terrorist groups, whose very method of combat--hiding behind civilians, not wearing uniforms, targeting civilians--violates all international norms

The fact that Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian religious state with few freedoms for its own people does not negate Israel’s appalling treatment of the population it occupies. Furthermore, the charge of opportunism that Bernstein levels at HRW could, rather more justifiably be extended to Israel itself. After all, Israel enjoys something of an indirect alliance with the Wahabi regime, and friendly working relations with anti-Semitic evangelical Christian elements in America such as Pat Robertson and John Hagee. But, in Bernstein’s world, the burden of proof is placed on everybody but Israel.

Bernstein again: In the MENASSAT commentary, I left no doubt as to the source of my criticism, having weighed in against HRW for "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,'" and for possibly "becoming dependent on funds emanating from a brutal dictatorship [which] leaves you vulnerable to that brutal dictatorship later cutting off the flow of funds if you don't 'behave.'"

Human Rights Watch, as Whitson has stated again and again, takes money from nationals of many countries, including the US, which engages in its own fair share of human rights violations. Saudi citizens have broad access to international media, despite the despotic nature of their government. They also have access to the Internet, where—before attending an event in Human Rights Watch’s honor— they could be expected to acquaint themselves with the organization’s numerous critical reports on the state of affairs in their own country.

Bernstein writes, "But throwing out charges of racism against its critics, which are not only unsubstantiated but completely irrelevant to the issues at hand, is apparently a-okay with HRW's Middle East director, Ms. Whitson."

On the contrary, the charge of racism is far from irrelevant, but rather pervasive in Bernstein’s characterization of the monolithic mindset of Saudi citizens. 

The entire basis of Bernstein’s argument in the Wall Street Journal piece rested on two premises: one, that HRW did not on its visit to Riyadh adequately criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, a baseless claim that Bernstein later apologized for propagating; and secondly, on the conflation of the “brutal dictatorship” with intellectuals such as Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan, the host of HRW’s event in Riyadh. Since Bernstein’s half-hearted retraction to Ms. Whitson, he has repeatedly fallen back on the latter claim—one that attributes the characteristics of a brutal dictatorship to an entire population.

Bernstein wasn't the only commentator that Whitson was referring to in her interview with MENASSAT.  Jeffrey Goldberg, a prominent journalist from the Atlantic, 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 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.”

The sentiments expressed in this statement are indeed racially tinged. Goldberg is in fact insinuating that Saudi Arabians - unlike Americans - cannot be trusted with the information that pro-Israeli groups exist. Goldberg implies that HRW should conduct itself vigilantly around inhabitants of “the Arabian peninsula,” because they might all be suckers for conspiracy theories and fanatics who care only about combating what they believe is a global Jewish takeover, and not about the rights abuses at the hands of their own government. On the contrary, most Arabs care deeply about the injustices committed by Israel as well as the crimes perpetrated by their own dictatorial regimes, many of them propped up by the United States, of course. This is not lost on anyone—not on the elite, not on your common citizen of a “brutal dictatorship” such as Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch is not highly regarded in the Arab world for its criticism of Israel. Rather, it is often criticized  by advocates of the Palestinian cause– as MENASSAT pointed out —for neglecting the political context of occupier and occupied, lending the false impression that Palestinians and Israelis are equal forces squaring off. If one wanted in earnest to fund anti-Israeli efforts, surely this would not be channeled through Human Rights Watch, which tirelessly documents violations of international humanitarian law regardless of who—Palestinians or Israelis—commits them. The “Saudi elite” that attended HRW’s dinner in Riyadh, who --Bernstein alleges-- has connections to the highest levels of government, could if it wanted probably manage a shipload of ammunition, or a bank transfer to one of the Middle Eastern groups engaged in direct combat with Israel.

The fact remains that efforts to sway defenders of Israel’s conduct will not be achieved by donations to Human Rights Watch. Many of those partisans, to whom Bernstein surely counts himself, are apparently not to be convinced by hard evidence of human rights violations.