HRW and Antisemitism: Sins of Commission and Omission
Since 2003, HRW has consistently opposed and obstructed meaningful initiatives to combat antisemitism
In 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) committed to “bring problems of anti-Semitism into the overall human rights discourse.” However, for the past 20 years, HRW has taken the opposite direction by failing to contribute meaningfully to ending hatred of and attacks against Jewish people. Indeed, as shown in a systematic review of HRW’s output since 2003, HRW has consistently opposed and obstructed meaningful initiatives to combat antisemitism. In fact, the most significant item on this issue was HRW’s 2023 letter to the American Bar Association, calling for the rejection of a resolution on antisemitism that endorsed the international-consensus IHRA Working Definition. And as this brief report demonstrates, HRW officials – including long-time leader Ken Roth – have made numerous antisemitic comments and shared antisemitic content on social media.
HRW policy of obstruction has come during a period of marked increase in antisemitic attacks around the world – and especially in the United States – reflecting HRW’s total lack of credibility. The 2003 commitment is exposed as empty words.
Ignoring antisemitic crimes
NGO Monitor reviewed HRW publications from 2003-2022. During that time, we identified only 12 cursory instances where HRW discussed antisemitism and antisemitic events per se, without joining them with other issues such as Islamophobia and other forms of racism. This total excludes passing mentions of antisemitic incidents; HRW statements and activities opposing the IHRA working definition and similar responses to antisemitic activity and speech (almost always without suggesting meaningful concrete alternatives); and HRW denying that antisemitic activity and speech is, in fact, antisemitic.
Examples from recent years:
- HRW’s 2022 World Report (covering 2021) does not mention antisemitism in the US. (The ADL reported 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the US in 2021 – the highest total since the organization began tracking in 1979.)
- HRW’s 2021 World Report made no mention of antisemitism in the US. The ADL reported 2,024 antisemitic incidents in the US in 2020 – then the third highest total recorded.
In addition to a general corporate policy of ignoring antisemitism, HRW also failed to report on major antisemitic incidents:
- On December 11, 2019, two members of the Black Hebrew Israelite hate group murdered six people in a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey. NGO Monitor could not identify a single mention of this crime on HRW’s website.
- On March 19, 2012, a gunman murdered four people, including three children, outside a Jewish school in Toulouse. HRW did not condemn the attack as antisemitism on its website until January 2015 (“Dispatches: After Charlie Hebdo, Tackling Intolerance Against Jews and Muslims”). Even then, the context was an article arguing – following a string of Islamist terrorist attacks against French Jews and other targets – that antisemitism should be opposed alongside Islamophobia. Notably, in the article, HRW cites CCIF, a French organization, for information regarding anti-Muslim incidents. CCIF was disbanded in 2020 by the French government for promoting antisemitic individuals and for ties between CCIF officials and Al-Qaeda members.
Opposing measures to protect Jews and fight antisemitism
While paying infrequent lip-service to combating antisemitism, HRW has consistently campaigned against practical measures designed to protect Jewish communities and prevent further antisemitism.
- On January 26, 2023, HRW published a letter to the American Bar Association (ABA), calling on it to reject the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
- Following the January 9, 2015 assault on a kosher supermarket in France, during which four Jews were murdered and several held hostage, the French Minister of Justice instructed prosecutors to adopt a “systematic, adapted and individualized” approach to combatting antisemitic and other types of hate speech, and speech glorifying terrorism. HRW responded with a January 16 publication (“Dispatches: France, a Country of Freedom of Expression – For Some”), February 11 article (“Assessing Europe’s Response to the Paris Attacks”), and a June submission to the UN arguing that such measures are “likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in France, weaken[s] its credibility as a country that stands up for freedom of expression and set[s] a dangerous example for governments that are quick to use counterterrorism laws to silence their critics.”
- In May 2019, HRW was among the leaders in an intense media campaign opposing the German Bundestag resolution acknowledging that anti-Israel boycotts can be antisemitic. HRW called on the German government to reject the resolution while labeling it “misplaced and the wrong way to combat anti-Semitism.” Ironically, in the article published in The European, an HRW official acknowledged an increase in violent antisemitism across Europe, but its only suggestions were “investigating and punishing” violent antisemitism and “addressing head-on the anti-Semitic bullying in our schools.”
Instrumentalizing antisemitic attacks
Often, HRW ignores an antisemitic incident until it can be exploited to strike at a expedient target on the NGO’s political agenda. The April 2019 attack in a Poway, California synagogue, murdering one Jew and wounding three, including a child, is one such example.
HRW did not mention the assault on its website until August 29, 2019 – and even then in a single sentence – when it authored a piece criticizing then President Trump for calling Jewish supporters of the Democratic Party “disloyal.”
The organization’s 2020 “World Report” dedicated one sentence to the murder, mentioning it together with acts of violence in Texas and Ohio by “men espousing white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist views.”
HRW antisemitic rhetoric
Under the 30-year leadership of Ken Roth, HRW and its leadership advanced antisemitic tropes in the obsessive focus on Israel:
- In July 2021, Roth blamed Israel for antisemitic incidents in the UK, tweeting “Antisemitism is wrong, and long preceded the creation of Israel, but the surge in UK antisemitic incidents during the recent Gaza conflict gives the lie to those who pretend that the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t affect antisemitism.” After intense criticism, Roth later deleted the tweet, claiming he was “misunderstood.”
- In September 2014, Roth blamed attacks on Jews in Germany and the rise of antisemitism in Europe on Israel’s conduct during the 2014 Gaza War.
- During the 2014 Gaza war, Roth promoted a letter published in The New York Times and The Guardian equating “Nazi genocide” with “the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.” Roth retweeted another post which included the tagline “‘Never again’ must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!”
- In 2009, HRW “senior military analyst” Marc Garlasco, who contributed to numerous HRW condemnations of Israel, was revealed to be an obsessive collector of Nazi memorabilia. Rather than condemn Garlasco’s activities and remove his tendentious publications from HRW’s website, Roth and HRW defended him and tried to justify his actions.
- In July 2006, responding to critics of HRW’s accusations on the Lebanon War, Roth declared: “An eye for an eye – or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye – may have been the morality of some more primitive moment. But it is not the morality of international humanitarian law…” The New York Sun decried this statement as a “slur on the Jewish religion itself that is breathtaking in its ignorance… To suggest that Judaism is a ‘primitive’ religion incompatible with contemporary morality is to engage in supersessionism, the de-legitimization of Judaism, the basis of much antisemitism.”