There are two kinds of ex-Human Rights Watch employees: whistleblowers and fanatics. Both tend to confirm all the public’s worst assumptions about the organization.
Danielle Haas is the former. “Following the Hamas massacres in Israel on October 7, years of institutional creep culminated in organizational responses that shattered professionalism, abandoned principles of accuracy and fairness, and surrendered its duty to stand for the human rights of all,” Haas emailed the staff on her last day as a Human Rights Watch senior editor. That email was leaked to the Times of Israel.
I’m not so sure HRW had any professionalism left to shatter, principles to abandon, or duties to surrender by that point, but Haas certainly describes the statements accurately. “HRW’s initial reactions to the Hamas attacks failed to condemn outright the murder, torture, and kidnapping of Israeli men, women, and children. They included the ‘context’ of ‘apartheid’ and ‘occupation’ before blood was even dry on bedroom walls.”
Haas is also correct that this was not a one-off. HRW did not display a lapse in judgment; it displayed the very focused judgment it has long trained on the democracies of the world, especially Israel.
And that was the dedicated obsession of a man who is the perfect example of the second category: the fanatic.
Kenneth Roth took over as director of HRW in 1993 and stayed there for 29 years. During that time, he nearly single-handedly destroyed the credibility of the human-rights NGO industry. Roth’s work possesses no saving grace—indeed, the man has no grace of that or any other kind to speak of. He is a dictator’s dream, spending three decades as a mercenary for authoritarians seeking to exploit the freedom of democratic countries for the cause of moral equivalence. Roth is what you’d get if Soviet “whataboutism” were a person, a golem manifested by the chantings of Oberlin freshmen.
But he is not a complex man. And his simplicity is a prime reason for HRW’s downward spiral beginning with the war on terror.
As Arch Puddington wrote in these pages in 2002, HRW and Amnesty International both had no idea how to handle a post-9/11 world because terrorism didn’t really fit into their worldview. Instead, Puddington notes, “whatever havoc terrorists may wreak on a society, the more serious human-rights problem in the eyes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lies in the methods that public authorities have adopted to combat these ‘indistinct enemies.’ Nowhere has this attitude been more pronounced than in the way human-rights groups have treated the challenge posed by radical Islam, which everywhere has resorted to terror as a basic tactic.”
In HRW’s view, terrorism itself came to be seen as evidence of innocence, a status marker for the put-upon. Roth’s social-media profile kicked that warped message into overdrive and his public-relations department concretized it as an agency-wide strategy.
As Jonathan Foreman wisely noted in 2014, HRW would occasionally toss the obligatory mealy-mouthed condemnation Hamas’s way, but that hardly excused the organization “because the overall amount of material put out on Israel, measured by words and pages, is strikingly out of balance and because HRW’s reports on Israel are uniquely accompanied in almost every case by high-profile press releases and press conferences. As its executive director, Roth has devoted much of his letter writing and public work to alleged Israeli crimes, to the exclusion of other matters. And he has taken his conduct to Twitter.”
This is a key point: Israel does not merely receive a disproportionate amount of attention from HRW, but receives a different type of attention. It is all designed to give the impression that Israel is uniquely dismissive of human rights when in fact the opposite is usually the case.
All of this history made HRW’s reaction to Oct. 7 inevitable, as Haas suggests in her letter to colleagues. HRW’s founder and former chairman, Robert Bernstein, has himself raised this objection.
Haas’s letter about HRW’s behavior contains a lesson that extends far beyond the NGO sector. The organization borrowed and spent the credibility it received from other conflict zones without ever repaying the debt. Academia’s suspension of the basic principles of rigor and fact-finding for Israel-related matters eventually seeped into the wider university world and became a pedagogical style all its own. The Democratic Party has contented itself with the fact that “squad”-style progressives make up a small part of the caucus, but the outsize attention to Israel has begun to crack the party open, resulting in a near-siege of the Democratic National Committee headquarters this week. Western media’s commitment to singling out Israel from their ethical-journalistic obligations has turned into a full-on war on the concept of objectivity.
Institutional hatred of Israel results in institutional corrosion and corruption, every time.