(Updated April 27, 2010) Following the publication of “Minority Report: Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel” in The New Republic (Benjamin Birnbaum, April 27, 2010), NGO Monitor repeated its call for an independent investigation into the hiring practices, research priorities, methodologies, and biases of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The detailed evidence in this article highlights the deeply-rooted bias among senior HRW officials – this bias is destroying the moral foundation and universality of human rights,” commented NGO Monitor President, Prof. Gerald Steinberg.

The information presented by Birnbaum reinforces NGO Monitor’s systematic research on HRW’s disproportionate resources devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict. (In 2009, HRW publications on Israel comprised 28 percent of its total MENA output.) The article also provides more evidence of what led founder Robert Bernstein to condemn HRW’s role in turning “Israel into a pariah state.”

Among the salient quotes and points in the TNR article:

  • Bias: According to a colleague, Sarah Leah Whitson (who led HRW’s fundraising trip Saudi Arabia invoking the specter of the “pro-Israel” lobby) “definitely has no sympathy for the Israeli side… And she does, I think, have a lot of personal identification with the Palestinian cause.”
  • Sarah Leah Whitson’s relationship with Norman Finkelstein (“…she brought him to HRW to discuss his 2005 book…”)[1]: “…I continue to have tremendous respect and admiration for him, because …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.”
  • Former HRW board member Edith Everett: “It seemed to me that there was a commitment to a point of view—that Israel’s the bad guy here.”
  • “We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”
  • Former MENA board member Steve Apkon “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.’”
  • Culture of suppression: “I’ve had staff members come to me and tell me off the record that they’re not happy with the way this particular thing is being done, but they’re not going to say anything,” said Sid Sheinberg, vice-chairman of the HRW board.
  • Robert James, a member of the MENA board: “Human Rights Watch has a more basic problem. . . . They cannot take criticism.”
  • Steve Apkon: “An organization that was founded to protect the most basic of human rights—freedom of speech… seems to have created within its own organization a disregard and intolerance for open dialogue.”
  • Marc Garlasco: According to Birnbaum’s sources, Garlasco stated 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… it was regarded as a headline-generating story.”
  • Garlasco “thought that the organization had a habit of ignoring necessary context when covering war” and “that… Whitson and others at MENA had far-left political views.”
  • Garlasco “did not think Israel’s use of white phosphorous amounted to a war crime.” Yet HRW’s report Rain of Fire (March 25, 2009) alleged “the commission of war crimes,” and this publication became the basis for extensive condemnations in the UN’s Goldstone report.
  • Moral obfuscation: When Ken Roth was asked “about HRW’s refusal to take a position on Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel, including his famous call for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map,’ Roth quibbled about the way the statement had been translated in the West.” TNR notes Roth’s view that “it was not HRW’s place to render judgments on such rhetoric.” And Whitson defended this, stating: “You know, that statement was also matched by Hillary Clinton saying that the Iranian regime should be destroyed or wiped off the map.”

Commenting on these revelations and admissions, NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg concluded: “HRW’s bias is most pernicious in the Middle East division. Whitson and Joe Stork, who were anti-Israel campaigners prior to joining HRW, have employed a string of pro-Palestinian activists — Lucy Mair, Darryl Li, Nadia Barhoum, Jamil Dakwar, and Arezo Yazd. HRW’s Palestinian tilt is even reflected in the office décor; and the norms of universal human rights are nowhere to be seen.”


[1] Finkelstein is known for his anti-Israel demagoguery. As Birnbaum notes, Finkelstein is a “Hezbollah supporter who has likened Israel to Nazi Germany.” His 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History alleges that pro-Israel supporters invoke “spurious charges of anti-Semitism”. The book also accuses Alan Dershowitz of plagiarism and uses Human Rights Watch reports on Israel as references. His other work, the Holocaust Industry, claims that Jews exploit the Holocaust for political and financial benefits.