[Opinion] Human Rights as Theater: The Strange Saga of Omar Shakir’s Visa

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Human Rights Watch (HRW), an American organization founded in the 1970s as Helsinki Watch to campaign for the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, reinvented itself with the end of the Cold War. It is now a political lobby, selectively using human rights and international law to promote the ideological causes of its main patron, George Soros.

Israel is a favorite target for HRW and its long-time leader, Kenneth Roth. With an annual budget of $70 million, the organization produces a stream of “reports” condemning Israel for alleged war crimes and related violations, which are then cited in boycott resolutions and petitions to the International Criminal Court. Roth has stocked the Middle East and North Africa division with a number of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and lawfare activists, supported by a highly skilled public relations team.

Omar Shakir is one of HRW’s professional BDSers, hired in 2016 as a “researcher on Palestine.” He applied as a “foreign expert” for an Israeli work visa–routinely provided by the low-level clerks in the Interior Ministry to NGOs, including many deeply involved in propaganda wars. But by this point, the benign image of NGOs was gone, other ministries were consulted, and in early 2017, HRW received a letter denying the application and citing the organization’s track record of demonization. Sixteen years after HRW’s leading role in the infamous NGO Forum of the UN Durban Conference that launched BDS and labeled Israel an “apartheid state,” and nine years after HRW helped shape the Goldstone report fiasco, it appeared that Israel was finally taking NGO demonization seriously.

However, by sending Roth’s organization the response directly and not making it public on its own terms, Israel allowed HRW to control the story and spin the denial as another ostensibly anti-democratic move by the Netanyahu government. A flood of condemnations predictably followed (ignoring the fact that all democracies routinely deny visas on various grounds), and Israel suddenly and inexplicably reversed itself, and Shakir got a one-year visa.