Rosa Brooks on Criticism of Human Rights Watch

by Kevin Jon Heller

Rosa Brooks has a must-read editorial in the Los Angeles Times today on the savage, ad hominem, and counter-productive criticism directed at Human Rights Watch and its director, Ken Roth, over the organization’s work on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict:

EVER WONDER what it’s like to be a pariah?

Publish something sharply critical of Israeli government policies and you’ll find out. If you’re lucky, you’ll merely discover that you’ve been uninvited to some dinner parties. If you’re less lucky, you’ll be the subject of an all-out attack by neoconservative pundits and accused of rabid anti-Semitism.

This, at least, is what happened to Ken Roth. Roth — whose father fled Nazi Germany — is executive director of Human Rights Watch, America’s largest and most respected human rights organization. (Disclosure: I have worked in the past as a paid consultant for the group.) In July, after the Israeli offensive in Lebanon began, Human Rights Watch did the same thing it has done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Congo, Uganda and countless other conflict zones around the globe: It sent researchers to monitor the conflict and report on any abuses committed by either side.

It found plenty. On July 18, Human Rights Watch condemned Hezbollah rocket strikes on civilian areas within Israel, calling the strikes “serious violations of international humanitarian law and probable war crimes.” So far, so good. You can’t lose when you criticize a terrorist organization.

But Roth and Human Rights Watch didn’t stop there. As the conflict’s death toll spiraled — with most of the casualties Lebanese civilians — Human Rights Watch also criticized Israel for indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Roth noted that the Israeli military appeared to be “treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone,” and he observed that the failure to take appropriate measures to distinguish between civilians and combatants constitutes a war crime.

The backlash was prompt. Roth and Human Rights Watch soon found themselves accused of unethical behavior, giving aid and comfort to terrorists and anti-Semitism. The conservative New York Sun attacked Roth (who is Jewish) for having a “clear pro-Hezbollah and anti-Israel bias” and accused him of engaging in “the de-legitimization of Judaism, the basis of much anti-Semitism.” Neocon commentator David Horowitz called Roth a “reflexive Israel-basher … who, in his zest to pillory Israel at every turn, is little more than an ally of the barbarians.” The New Republic piled on, as did Alan Dershowitz, who claimed Human Rights Watch “cooks the books” to make Israel look bad. And writing in the Jewish Exponent, Jonathan Rosenblum accused Roth of resorting to a “slur about primitive Jewish bloodlust.”

Anyone familiar with Human Rights Watch — or with Roth — knows this to be lunacy. Human Rights Watch is nonpartisan — it doesn’t “take sides” in conflicts. And the notion that Roth is anti-Semitic verges on the insane.

But what’s most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn’t that it’s savage, unfounded and fantastical. What’s most troubling is that it’s typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn’t possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism. Think Israel’s tactics against Hezbollah were too heavy-handed, or that Israel hasn’t always been wholly fair to the Palestinians, or that the United States should reconsider its unquestioning financial and military support for Israel? Shhh: Don’t voice those sentiments unless you want to be called an anti-Semite — and probably a terrorist sympathizer to boot.

How did adopting a reflexively pro-Israel stance come to be a mandatory aspect of American Jewish identity? Skepticism — a willingness to ask tough questions, a refusal to embrace dogma — has always been central to the Jewish intellectual tradition. Ironically, this tradition remains alive in Israel, where respected public figures routinely criticize the government in far harsher terms than those used by Human Rights Watch.

In a climate in which good-faith criticism of Israel is automatically denounced as anti-Semitic, everyone loses. Israeli policies are a major source of discord in the Islamic world, and anger at Israel usually spills over into anger at the U.S., Israel’s biggest backer.

With resentment of Israeli policies fueling terrorism and instability both in the Middle East and around the globe, it’s past time for Americans to have a serious national debate about how to bring a just peace to the Middle East. But if criticism of Israel is out of bounds, that debate can’t occur — and we’ll all pay the price.

Back to Human Rights Watch’s critics. Why waste time denouncing imaginary anti-Semitism when there’s no shortage of the real thing? From politically motivated arrests of Jews in Iran to assaults on Jewish children in Ukraine, there’s plenty of genuine anti-Semitism out there — and Human Rights Watch is usually taking the lead in condemning it. So if you’re bothered by anti-Semitism — if you’re bothered by ideologies that insist that some human lives have less value than others — you could do a whole lot worse than send a check to Human Rights Watch.

I am particularly struck by Brooks’ gentle reminder that skepticism has always been central to the Jewish intellectual tradition. I grew up in Boulder, not exactly the ideal location in which to nourish a Jewish identity. I was always proud to be Jewish and read widely in history of Judaism, but never felt a particularly strong personal connection to my religion. That only changed when I was an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which was known in the 1930s as the “University in Exile” because of its decision to create a haven for Jewish intellectuals fleeing Nazi persecution. I will never forget the day I stood in the New School lobby, reading the names of the members of the University in Exile — Karl Brandt, Emil Lederer, Max Wertheimer, Hans Speier, Hans Jonas, and (most famous of all) Hannah Arendt. All of a sudden, it struck me that I was not just a left-wing intellectual, but a Jewish left-wing intellectual, a small part of a tradition of skepticism and progressive thought that had spanned generations, if not centuries. That may seem trivial to some, perhaps even silly, but to me it was one of the most profound insights in my life — the first time I ever felt truly Jewish.

2 Responses

  1. Quite a moving post.

    This morning I read Brooks’ article and said to myself, ‘I sure hope someone at Opinio Juris sees this.’ Well…!

    You may also want to read, if you haven’t already, Judith Butler’s expression of similar sentiment in her London Review of Books article, ‘No, It’s Not Anti-Semitic,’ Vol. 25, No. 16 (21 August 2003). Butler’s piece is even more eloquent, but of course she had more space within which to make her argument. Please see:

    Although I am not Jewish, the number of Jewish left-wing intellectuals (in both a cultural and religious sense) in my personal pantheon of heroes is quite large: individually and collectively they evidence ethical clarity and vision, independence of thought, intellectual tenacity, perseverance, scholarly acumen, and personal courage and integrity in enviable degree and proportion.

    There was absolutely nothing whatsoever trivial or silly about your realization that you belong to a tradition worthy of close study and careful emulation. Long may it flourish!

  2. On second thought, I should have signed the comment above:

    Warmest regards


    Truly yours,

    Patrick S. O’Donnell

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