Professor Heller’s defense of Kenneth Roth

by Avi Bell

It is sad to see that Professor Heller, like HRW’s employees, is unwilling to acknowledge any HRW misteps. It is even sadder to see that Professor Heller, like HRW’s employees and other supporters, is willing to distort the facts in order to excuse HRW’s and Kenneth Roth’s inexcusable behavior.

(a) Contrary to Professor Heller’s contention, HRW’s philosophy has never been that “that state-sanctioned killing of any kind is never justified.” If it were, HRW would not pretend to adhere to the mission of upholding the laws of war, since the laws of war justify state-sanctioned killing, so long as it is aimed at the right (military) targets, and collateral damage (to civilians) is “proportionate” to the military necessity. HRW has never asserted that it opposes all state-sanctioned killing by other parties in the world. HRW is apparently only opposed to all state-sanctioned killing when carried out by the Jewish state. I would understand (and respectfully disagree) if HRW were to adopt, across the board, the position that state-sanctioned killing is improper. This would be a principled position, unlike its current anti-Israel crusade.

(b) Israel’s military strategy in south Lebanon was not an eye-for-an-eye, and Israel never claimed it was. On the contrary, Israeli’s military strategy was explicitly aimed at the Hezbollah threat, rather than Hezbollah misdeed that occasioned the fighting; this is what led France, Russia, the UN, et al to complain that Israel’s strategy should be eye-for-an-eye (proportionate to the military strike occasioning Israel’s counter-strike), i.e., that Israel should use up to force identical to that used by Hezbollah, rather than respond to Hezbollah strikes by using the force that Israel believed necessary to neutralize the Hezbollah threat. Eye-for-an-eye is an accurate description of the French/Kofi Annan interpretation of the proportionality doctrine, and of the Heller-HRW caricature of Israeli strategy, not of Israeli strategy itself. Is it proper for Israel to use that force necessary to neutralize the threat? I believe it is and that is the way all states engage in warfare and that France, Russia etc. misinterpret the doctrine of proportionality. Perhaps Heller-HRW believe otherwise; if they do, I would much prefer that they have the intellectual honesty to take on that debate rather than distort their opponent’s position.

(c) Professor Heller may be right that Roth “understands that the Israeli government and the Jewish religion are not one and the same,” but, unfortunately, Roth’s demagoguery displays no sign of this understanding. Thus, for example, Roth insinuated that Israel is guided by “Biblical injunctions” rather than “international humanitarian law” here in attempting to excuse his original eye-for-an-eye remark. Professor Heller is almost certainly right that “the ‘primitive moment’ to which Mr. Roth referred has never been part of Judaism.” Indeed, the fact that Roth’s slur is based upon a characteristic misstatement of fact makes Roth’s misbehavior worse, not better.

That said, however, I do appreciate the artistry in Professor Heller’s increasingly gravity-defying attempts to clear HRW and its executive director through lingustic gymnastics.

4 Responses

  1. I am sure Professor Heller can defend his own piece and doesn’t need the assistance of hysterical blog commenters (with friends like these eh?), but I decided to take a look at what Human Rights Watch is publishing on its web site to probe for its “anti-Israel crusade.”

    Professor Bell, you stated “HRW is apparently only opposed to all state-sanctioned killing when carried out by the Jewish state.” Of course, as HRW and its defenders have suggested, its outward stance is to take no moral or political stance on the worthiness of the rationale for the fighting in any conflict. However, Ken Roth has said, in an editorial to the Jerusalem Post that “[p]rotecting Israelis from Hizbullah’s deadly rockets is vital, but it does not justify indifference to the taking of civilian lives on the other side of the border.” (emphasis added.) Maybe I’m not as adept at interpreting subtle linguistic gymnastics, but I don’t see in that statement stark opposition to Israel or Israel’s defending herself from attack.

    Since the onset of the conflict, by my cursory count, there have been about 20 publications by HRW on its web site about the Israel-Lebanon conflict (including press releases, editorials, reports, a “Q&A” and a production with the BBC).

    (There may be more that I’m missing, the HRW web site occasionally doesn’t list the documents relating to a conflict in one area.)

    At least 2 of those 20 focus exclusively on Hizbullah’s tactics including Roth’s statement on August 5th that Hizbullah’s “[l]obbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime.” HRW has also condemned the use of ball-bearings by Hizbullah in its rockets as early as July 18th. HRW has also provided a PDF file including the names of all the Israeli civilian dead from Hizbullah rocket attacks (available here).

    HRW has addressed both sides of the conflict in its documents several times. HRW has called upon Israel and Hizbullah to respect civilian life in its first press release as of 7/13. HRW’s Q&A addresses what the organization believes are violations of international humanitarian law on both sides (including the use of hostages by Hizbullah and the attacks by Hizbullah on Israeli civilians). Even in a strongly worded op-ed to the UK’s Guardian by Peter Bouckaert against Israeli tactics, HRW reiterated its claims against Hizbullah of violating international humanitarian law.

    Where HRW has criticized Israel it has focused on three main tactics: the use of cluster bombs, the blockades of ports and bombing of airports, and the claim by the IDF that Hizbullah is launching attacks from civilian bases (a claim which the IDF has used to justify collateral deaths at places like Qana and elsewhere, situations which HRW wants investigated).

    There may be reasons to dispute whether or not these actions were war crimes or whether HRW’s facts were accurate. I don’t know enough beyond what I read on its own web site. In fact, these press releases are in keeping with HRW’s statements in other regions involving Western powers say for example, the U.S.’ campaign in Iraq. Therefore, I don’t believe claims that HRW has some special enmity for Israel. And the rhetoric employed by the side disputing HRW’s claims, ranging from calls of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel crusades, and even, from one commentator, blood libel! just doesn’t seem borne out by HRW’s own statements.

    There are certainly persons and groups that would like nothing more than to destroy or discredit Israel. I don’t believe, however, Ken Roth and HRW are among them.

  2. I appreciate non liquet’s comment. And in response to Professor Bell’s point that HRW does not take the position that state-sanctioned killing is never justified — although I think my meaning was clear, I should have been more precise and said that HRW’s position is that state-sanctioned murder is never justified, to underscore its acceptance of civilian casualties caused by genuinely proportionate attacks.

    That said, as non liquet points out, Professor Bell’s claim that “HRW is apparently only opposed to all state-sanctioned killing when carried out by the Jewish state” is so breathtakingly false that it boggles the mind.

  3. I agree that HRW does not oppose all state-sanctioned killing by Israel or anyone else. I was attempting to say that if Professor Heller really reads HRW position here to be opposition to all state-sanctioned killing, this is a position that it applies exclusively to Israel, but does not apply elsewhere. I thought this was clear, but upon rereading the post, I see the ambiguity, and hope this clarifies my meaning.

    Professor Heller’s amendment that he meant that HRW opposes all state-sanctioned murder is clever, but implausible. Let’s reinsert Professor Heller’s amended version in his statement and then see if it makes sense: Heller said, “Mr. Roth’s criticism of Israel’s military strategy simply reflects Human Rights Watch’s long-standing commit[]ment to the idea (manifested most specifically in its tireless campaign to abolish the death penalty) that state-sanctioned [murder] of any kind is never justified.”

    First, the amended statement doesn’t fit with the example Professor Heller cited. Where imposed by state law (and in accordance with due process, etc.), the death penalty is, by definition, not murder. How does HRW’s opposition to the death penalty show a long-standing commitment to opposing state-sanctioned murder?

    Second, the amended statement adds nothing to the debate since it now says that HRW has had a long-standing commitment to opposing illegal state killings of any kind. I should hope that is so, but that precisely is the question at issue — is HRW actually promoting its stated goal here of upholding the laws of war, or is it doing something else?

    I do and have acknowledged that while HRW’s wartime documents focused primarily on Israeli (and went well beyond discussion of the issues discussed by non liquet), they did not solely focus on Israel. HRW not only added a few pro-forma references to Hezbollah war crimes in HRW’s anti-Israel documents, it also noticed a handful of Hezbollah’s many war crimes and other violations of relevant international laws. My criticism is that (1) HRW’s criticism is sloppy with the facts and law, and all in one direction and (2) the proportions of its criticisms do not fit the proportions of the quantity and gravity of the alleged offenses, once again erring in a certain direction.

    I have not speculated that HRW’s abysmal performance here is due to anti-Semitism. Nor have I identified any aspect of their behavior as anti-Jewish, other than Roth’s offensive remarks. Rosa Brooks is attempting to excuse HRW’s misbehavior by using a red herring, and it behooves us not to follow her.

    PS. I didn’t read HRW to deny altogether that Hezbollah has launched attacks from civilian areas; if HRW were to do that, that would be a new level of disingenuousness that even HRW hasn’t gotten to yet.

  4. one thing to keep in mind is that Roth justifies his work, and often responds to criticism along Bell’s lines, by referring to his father’s flight from Nazi persecution. He prefers to ignore the fact that many people who disagree with his and his organization’s positions and view them as anti-Israel, myself included, also had fathers who fled Nazi persecution. So if not anti-Jewish, it is at least obnoxious for Roth to claiming the moral high-ground on that basis.

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