Bernstein Slurs Another Member of Human Rights Watch (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been ignoring the latest salvos in David Bernstein’s lonely war against Human Rights Watch, because they have not purported to be anything other than character assassination.  But his latest effort to discredit Marc Garlasco, HRW’s Senior Military Analyst, is so beyond the pale of acceptable discourse that something needs to be said.  Here are the relevant paragraphs of the post:

Is Human Rights Watch’s Marc Garlasco A Nazi-Obsessed Collector?

Well, yes. But if you’re going to hire pro-Palestinian activists to run your Middle East division, why not throw in an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia (he even wrote a book, see below) to be your military investigator for good measure?

Snark aside, I understand there are people who collect Nazi memorabilia for innocuous reasons, and in Garalasco’s case, his grandfather served seven years in the Nazi military. Perhaps there’s not much more to it than that. But it’s still, to say the least, a rather odd hobby for someone hired to be a human rights organization’s point man on Israel issues.

This is vintage Bernstein: acknowledge that there are “innocuous reasons” for collecting Nazi memorabilia, but imply, without any evidence whatsoever — cue the scary classical music — that there might be more here than meets the eye…  In which case, of course, we can’t take seriously anything Galasco says about military operations in the Middle East, despite his background:

Marc spent seven years in the Pentagon as a senior intelligence analyst covering Iraq. His last position there was chief of high-value targeting during the Iraq war in 2003. Marc was on the Operation Desert Fox (Iraq) Battle Damage Assessment team in 1998, led a Pentagon Battle Damage Assessment team to Kosovo in 1999, and recommended thousands of aimpoints on hundreds of targets during operations in Iraq and Serbia.

As part of my life-long fascination with World War II — fascination born of the fact that the Nazis killed significant numbers of my extended family — I have always collected images and originals of Nazi propaganda posters.  I guess that means not only that I don’t believe Israel has a right to exist, but that I’m a Nazi sympathizer, as well.

UPDATE: Bernstein has posted HRW’s response to the ridiculous attacks on Gerlasco.  Please read it — and read Anderson’s comment to this post, as well, in which he points out the absurdity of implying that there is something suspicious about Gerlasco wearing a sweatshirt with the Iron Cross, given that it has been the official symbol of the Bundeswehr since 1956.  (And note that the modifed version of the Iron Cross used by the German Armed Forces is the version on Gerlasco’s sweatshirt.)

ADDENDUM:Bernstein adds that he thinks “it’s a rather strange obsession for a human rights investigator who spends much of his time investigating Israel for HRW.  Strange because human rights activists aren’t typically obsessed with collecting momentoes of Nazi war achievements.”  It’s actually not strange at all for someone who is dedicated to defending human rights to be interested in — and collect memorabilia associated with — individuals who are responsible for massive human-rights violations.  After all, numerous high-profile African-American entertainers and scholars collect racist memorabilia: Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Julian Bond and others.  I guess, by Bernstein’s lights, we should be wondering — if not actually suggesting — whether, in fact, they are actually white supremacists.

UPDATE 2: Bernstein is back again, accusing me of “shilling” for HRW and being unethical for having forgot to mention — which I have over and over again on this blog — that I consulted with HRW on the Saddam trial.  It only seems fair to mention, then, that Bernstein’s criticisms of HRW have long been, and no doubt will continue to be, based on deliberate misrepresentations of HRW’s work, as I have documented time and again.  At least he got my institution and profession right this time!

37 Responses

  1. You’ve omitted quite a few bits of information from this ongoing discussion that makes it quite clear that, in fact, HRW has hired someone with a more than a hobyist’s interest in Nazi memorability.  For example, he wrote a 430 page book about Nazi memorabilia and at least two militaria collectors have apparebtly corroborated the interpretation that Garlasco is something of a Naziphile.

    So, to be frank, yes, I find it odd that no one ever questioned the possible bias of someone who showed a strong bias against Israel and a strong love of all things Nazi.  If he were a judge he’d likely have been asked to recuse himself, and yet he is asked to judge and summarize information about conflict in the Middle East.  Shameless….

  2. Before I respond to Kevin’s post, I shall make two points: (1) Putting completley to one side Garlasco’s “hobby,” NGO Monitor, CAMERA and others have pointed out that Garlasco has made accusations about Israeli military actions that he is unqualified to make (because they involve knowledge of specific weaponry that there is no indication that he has), and that have turned out to be wrong.  Interested readers should especially look at NGO Monitor’s latest report on HRW, which covers this and other issues, and is devastating.
    (2) Kevin has been noticeably silent on my blogging about (a) HRW M.E. director Sarah Leah Whitson’s background–she was a pro-Palestinian activist serving on the board of the NY branch of the ADC (and in that capacity was personally intimately involved in pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activism) when hired in 2004, and (b) her deputy Joe Stork’s background–he was a longstanding severe critic of Israel when hired in 1996, and remains a supporter of divestment and sanctions against Israel.   Not to mention that another HRW staffer (since departed) was a writer for the “Electronic Intifada,” and a more recent hire was a student pro-Palestinian activist at Berkeley.  Come on Kevin, I know you worked for HRW, but does it tell you NOTHING about HRW’s objectivity re Israel that it hires anti-Israel activists  (and never pro-Israel activists) to run  and work for its Middle East programs?

    Back to the matter at hand.  Kevin, you analogize your hobby to Garlasco’s.  Do you happen to have a vanity license plate devoted to a feared Nazi weapon? Do you use that name as your internet handle?  Have you written hundreds of posts on Nazi memorabilia websites?  Do you proudly display pictures of various Nazi war medals that you’ve collected on the Internet?  Have you become enough of an expert on Nazi medals (or the propaganda posters you collect) to write a book on the subject?  If not, I don’t think you should analogize your hobby to Garlasco’s obsession, especially given that your relatives were the victims, not the perpetrators.

    Beyond that, I’ll  reiterate what I wrote–plenty of people collect Nazi memorabilia for innocuous reasons, but it’s a very strange obsessive hobby for a guy hired by a human rights organization to write about Israel’s military ventures.  Strange because human rights activists aren’t typically obsessed with collecting momentoes Nazi war achievements than, as one blogger wrote, PETA activists are obsessed with collecting furs.  And strange because you would think that HRW, under fire for years for its rather obvious anti-Israel  bias, would not want to hire someone with this rather strange avocation given the obvious p.r. implications (all HRW really has, after all, is its reputation).  But as I’ve blogged about in detail, when it comes to Israel HRW is not only not interested in objectivity, it’s not even interested in the appearance of objectivity–if it was, it wouldn’t hire activists for the Palestinian cause to run it Middle East division, and its Middle East directors wouldn’t routinely express contempt for their pro-Israel critics while going out of their way to appease their anti-Israel critics.  The problem, in essence, is that HRW leaders are so convinced of their own righteousness and Israel’s evilness that these matters don’t even occur to them.

  3. Oh, and by the way, you can read all my recent posts on HRW here, and you can see that what Kevin calls “character assassination” is what the rest of us call “facts that Kevin can’t refute and won’t address, so he resorts to vague, unsupported allegations of character assassination instead.”

  4. <i> But his latest effort to discredit Marc Garlasco, HRW’s Senior Military Analyst, is so beyond the pale of acceptable discourse ….</i>

    KJH typically describes even the most rigorous and fact-based criticism of HRW as an “attack” or “salvo” or some such … so I guess it’s not surprising that he would want to shut someone up for saying “hmm that’s unusual” about an HRW investigator – since he seems to view these people as infallible and beyond reproach.

  5. At least I always open comments to my posts…

  6. KJH: At least I always open comments to my posts…

    Such is the luxury of writing for a relatively low-traffic blog.

  7. Regardless of whether Garlasco is or isn’t a Nazi sympathizer isn’t the point (although for Bernstein that appears to be the case). Rather, its when you work for an organization, particularly high-profile one such as HRW, your private life should not conflict with your organization’s objective. This may seem unfair, but it’s simply the nature of the world.

    Given that HRW has a tense relationship with Israel, it would probably be best (from a PR standpoint) to have someone who doesn’t have such an interest working on Middle East affairs. But the fact that HRW seems either be oblivious to this line of thinking or doesn’t care is alarming. It demonstrates at the very least that HRW is not interested in improving its relationship with Israel. At most, it could indicate an organizational bias against Israel.

    To put it in a different context, there’s a reason why no one working on US national security policy has an academic interest in Wahhabism as extensive and public as Garlasco’s Nazi interest. The US realizes (should they believe you aren’t a sympathizer) you aren’t worth the PR trouble.

  8. Relatively low traffic, as in the fifth most-read law blog dedicated to a single area of law — an area that is, moreover, relatively small compared to, say, contracts or corporations?  Guilty as charged.

  9. Bernstein gets worse and worse, while disabling comment threads since, unlike Heller, he can dish it out but can’t take it.

    Now he mocks Garlasco for wearing an Iron Cross sweatshirt.  Too bad that DB is unfamiliar with recondite, hard-to-access sources like Wikipedia:

    <i> In 1956 the Iron Cross became the symbol of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. The traditional design is black and this design is used on armored vehicles and aircraft.</i>

    The Iron Cross was around for decades before the Nazis, and quite obviously has outlasted them for decades.  Unless DB simply hates Germans qua Germans, his remark makes no sense.

  10. Kevin keeps asserting that I’m implying that Garlasco is a Nazi sympathizer, something I’ve never said.  I have no idea what motivates the guy; I’ve even charitably suggested that it’s just homage to his grandfather, a German WWII soldier. I’d say that being a conscious Nazi sympathizer is an extremely unlikely motivation.  But even if he has the most innocuous of motives, it’s a creepy obsessive hobby for anyone, but especially for someone in his position.
    Of course, I could be wrong, because I see Julian Bond wearing a Confederate military sweatshirt at Whole Foods all the time.  And I heard he’s writing a 430 page book about Confederate medals, featuring a blond-haired blue-eyed, brave looking southern soldier on the cover. And that he has hundreds of posts on a website devoted to Confederate military paraphenalia. And that his car has a license plate that says “FortSmtr.”  And of course, Garlasco, as a descendant of a German who served in WWII, is EXACTLY analogous to descendants of slaves who collect racist memorabilia to celebrate what they have overcome.
    Even HRW knows the hobby is disturbing, because its press release on the matter disingenuously states that Garlasco collects German and American memorabilia, not Nazi era military memorabilia.  I’m sure Kevin is writing to HRW as we speak, and urging that they not only stop trying obscure Garlasco’s “hobby,” but proudly proclaim that he’s acting in the grand tradition of Julian Bond.

  11. And by the way, Kevin pulled the lawyerly trick of rephrasing what I wrote.  Kevin writes that “it’s not strange at all for someone who is dedicated to defending human rights to be interested in — and collect memorabilia associated with — individuals who are responsible for massive human-rights violations.”  But I didn’t write that it’s strange for a human rights activist to collect Nazi-related memorabilia.  I wrote that it’s strange for a human rights activist to be “obsessed with collecting mementoes of Nazi war achievements.”  And again, HRW itself obviously agrees.

  12. “given that it has been the official symbol of the Bundeswehr since 1956”
    Disingenuous.  Garlasco is a WWII medal collector.  In a previous comment, I linked to some of the Nazi iron cross medals he owns. He posted the photo on a “German Combat Awards” website.  The sweatshirt says “The Iron Cross” in German, referring to the medal, not the Bundeswehr.  The medal is still widely associated in Germany with the Nazis; suggestions of bringing it back are met with outrage.

  13. Sorry, that was a bad link.  This should be right.

  14. Anderson writes:

    “Now he mocks Garlasco for wearing an Iron Cross sweatshirt.  Too bad that DB is unfamiliar with recondite, hard-to-access sources like Wikipedia:
    “<i> In 1956 the Iron Cross became the symbol of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. The traditional design is black and this design is used on armored vehicles and aircraft.</i>
    “The Iron Cross was around for decades before the Nazis, and quite obviously has outlasted them for decades.  Unless DB simply hates Germans qua Germans, his remark makes no sense.”
    Then please explain this exchange that went with the picture of Garlasco in the iron cross sweatshirt:
    Skip: Love the sweatshirt Mark. Not one I could wear here in germany though (well I could but it would be a lot of hassle)

    Garlasco: Everyone thinks it is a biker shirt!

    Skip: Yeh, were you come from but imagine walking around in Berlin with “das Eisene Kreuz” written across your cheat. Either you get beaten to pulp by a group of rampaging Turks or the police arrest you on suspicion of being a Nazi
    (Emphasis added – CiJ).
    The problem with Wikipedia is not that anyone can read it, but that just about anyone can write in it. It’s not always gospel truth.
    But from Garlasco’s German friend it’s clear that everyone in Germany (and undoubtedly Garlasco himself) knows what the iron cross symbolizes.

  15. I’m sorry that Skip is a bit of a dingbat, but Wikipedia is not mistaken in dating the Iron Cross back to the late Napoleonic era, which associates it with the German struggle for liberty from French imperialism.  If you have some particular knowledge that Wikipedia is mistaken in some factual assertion in its article, please feel free to identify it.

    Germany’s hangover from its back-to-back efforts at conquering Europe has indeed left it a much less militarist state than, for example, the United States, so I don’t doubt that wearing something that valorizes the military could be controversial. 

    But if it were a *Nazi* symbol, do you think the German armed forces would use it?  Do you think it would even be legal to display, much less officially endorse, in a country where’s its against the law to display the swastika?

  16. I must say I find it strange that his license plate reads Flak Heil Hitler…

  17. N.b. also that DB’s linked article above, while interesting, suggests that some Germans are “outraged” and some aren’t.  Outrage is pretty cheap to come by these days.

    Although its reintroduction is opposed by the Greens and many Social Democrats, supporters point out that the emblem is not synonymous with Nazism. The award was introduced in 1813 by King Frederick Wilhelm III as an outstanding-bravery medal for Prussian soldiers engaged in a “war of liberation” against Napoleon.

    (The article however errs by omission in awarding Hitler the Iron Cross, Second Class; he won that, but also won the First Class later in the war.  Wikipedia 1, Media 0.)

  18. It’s an odd feature of the Volokh Conspiracy in general. Maybe 60% well-reasoned, sober legal analysis, the likes of which is hard to match elsewhere on the internet; 25% knee-jerk attacks on liberals; and 15% idiosyncratic crusades. To their credit, Eugene Volokh, Orin Kerr, and Kenneth Anderson contribute exclusively to the first proportion. Jim Lindgren is bravely holding down the fort for the 2nd category, with less frequent assistance from a good number of other posters. David Bernstein’s Israel posts and Dale Carpenter’s gay-rights posts are the most long-running features of the last category.

  19. I only want to join this discussion to thank Volokhian for counting me among the “reasoned sober analysis,” but I must say that not all commenters would agree, and I do think, even of myself, that at least sometimes I am capable of knee jerk attacks on liberals and am even more prone to idiosyncratic crusades … one of these days I shall indeed restart at Volokh ……….. Sundays with Stendhal!!

  20. <i>Sundays with Stendhal</i>

    Excellent idea; maybe even a “book club” reading of <i>Charterhouse</i>?

  21. It’s not the collecting itself, in the abstract, that is at issue; it’s the total lack of concern he seems to have about maintaining his and his employer’s reputation on one of the most sensitive, hotly disputed issues they cover. Some of my relatives have relics from the Nazi era. They understand that these objects rightly arouse horror, and that it’s important to make clear to people why they would even possess such things. [Because they were passed down from relatives who fought against the Nazis in WWII, and are memento of the reality of what happened there, never to be forgotten or minimized.]

    When a person would adopt on the internet, and in public on a license plate, the Flak88 handle, the first thought I have is “NeoNazi”? Because even I, with limited knowledge in this area, recognize one common use of the 88. Now, I wouldn’t automatically assume anything about why a person used Flak88 or collected memorabilia, but the question would be opened in my mind. As a result, if this person wants me to believe he can be objective about human rights reporting on Israel, I need to hear a very careful, honest account of his actions. I would need to see that he understands the significance and the impression created by his actions, and is working to establish his objectivity in spite of that. For all I know, that’s happening and I’m not aware of it, but if all we have is this HRW statement, it really seems to miss the point of what’s disturbing in this case. 

  22. But his latest effort to discredit Marc Garlasco, HRW’s Senior Military Analyst, is so beyond the pale of acceptable discourse that something needs to be said.
    Tell that to Helena Cobban:
    Now, as y’all no doubt know, I’m on the Middle East advisory committee of Human Rights Watch. And I’ve been very disturbed indeed by the attacks the young, aggressively rightwing Israeli organization NGO Monitor has launched against the work HRW has done on the IDF’s combat behavior.
    But right now, I’m looking at this page on NGO Monitor’s website, and agreeing with much of what they have there on this topic.
    I’d say that Bernstein has done a real service in bringing Galarsco’s activities to a wider audience.

  23. You know, I half-expected Kevin to post again, this time saying, “you know, the more that comes out about Garalasco’s creepy Nazi obsession, [“That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!”] and the more my own leftwing allies join Bernstein in questioning it, the more I’m having second thoughts about the whole thing.”  But Kevin is just like his buddies at HRW: never apologize, never express remorse, never admit that you may have been wrong or too hasty, just attack, attack, attack, and hope no one notices the validity of the other side’s criticism.

  24. I read the responses that HRW and Garlasco posted on their website and they are dishonest and disingenuous.

    Garlasco claims he never realized his hobby could be controversial – even though he discusses the potential for controversy with his friends on the “Wehrmacht Awards forum”. Garlasco’s response also vaguely apologizes for upsetting people with some “juvenile” posts – as if it weren’t reasonable to view his remarks as a window on his real attitudes.

    HRW just misrepresents Garlasco’s activities, calls him a military historian (ha!) and flings s— at the critics.

  25. Well, at least “zywotkowitz” is honest enough to admit that he thinks Garlasco is a Nazi sympathizer — unlike the concern trolls who insist they don’t think that; they are just trying to protect HRW’s good name.

  26. I won’t bother to respond to Bernstein’s latest snide personal attack on me, but it’s worth pointing out — again — that his description of HRW is false, as his right-wing allies have admitted.

  27. This is what it’s like to debate with Kevin.  I made an offhand comment that in a blog post that HRW never retracts its errors re Israel. Indeed, Sarah Leah Whitson and and other at HRW still maintain that they’ve never made any such errors. Kevin claimed  to find an example where HRW did retract an error, where Garalsco admitted that Israel was right about the Gaza beach incident. Except it turned out that HRW came out with a press release days later in which it reiterated its original charge, and ignored Garlasco’s concession.  Then Kevin found another incident where HRW did acknowledge an egregious error, which had been pointed out to it a year earlier, after which Whitson verbally attacked HRW’s critics.  Unlike Kevin, who, for example, STILL hasn’t acknowledged that he was wrong about the UN-school-incident-that-never-happened, I acknowledged that this was a legitimate example,  though also noting that this one was rather hard to come by, because the original error was still on HRW’s website, uncorrected, and that it’s acknowledgement of error, buried in a new report, didn’t appear on HRW’s corrections website page. From this, Kevin claims that “my description of HRW is false,”  as if this somehow negates every other fact about HRW that I’ve raised, that he has not and cannot rebut.  New Bernstein policy: given that Kevin simply refuses to approach this debate in an honest matter, no more linking from Volokh.  When he’s ready to act like a mensch, I’ll revisit.

  28. Vintage Bernstein: make categorical assertion; have falsity of categorical assertion pointed out; claim that categorical assertion was an “offhand” remark and not actually categorical; blame person who pointed out falsity of categorical assertion for not being a “mensch.”

    I will continue to link to Bernstein’s posts, just as I will continue to allow comments to my posts.  Whether Bernstein does likewise is, of course, completely up to him.

  29. See, here’s exactly the problem. First, thanks to Kevin’s “creative” blogging, I forgot myself that my original claim was not that HRW never took back a criticism of Israel,  but that HRW  has not “officially responded to legitimate criticisms from pro-Israel sources the way it responded to (somewhat dubious) criticism from extremist anti-Israel critics.”  But even it was categorical, (a) there is  no contradiction between an “offhand comment” and a “categorical” one.  An offhand comment can obviously be categorical; and (b) I noted that Kevin did come up with an example of HRW retracted an allegation against Israel, with the caveats noted previously, e.g., that it left the original allegation uncorrected on its website.

    So Kevin and I agree, at least, that HRW has at least once retracted an allegation of Israeli misconduct that was based on eyewitness testimony, albeit half-heartedly.  Yet Whitson still claims that HRW has never done so, a blatant lie, and Kenneth Roth calls all criticism of HRW from pro-Israel sources “lies and deception.”  If Kevin was remotely honest/menschy in this debate, he’d be at least as harsh on Whitson and Roth for their categorical denials that HRW has ever been wrong and its critics right–the retraction re Sifra, raised by Kevin, belies that notion–as he was on me for me much less-of-a-blanket statement.  But that would mean that Kevin was actually interested in an honest debate, and not just trying to defend HRW/discredit its critics, period.

  30. “A visit from Hitler!”

    For more Garlasco/Flak88 Posts, see here:

  31. Bernstein, above:

    First, thanks to Kevin’s “creative” blogging, I forgot myself that my original claim was not that HRW never took back a criticism of Israel, but that HRW  has not “officially responded to legitimate criticisms from pro-Israel sources the way it responded to (somewhat dubious) criticism from extremist anti-Israel critics.”

    Bernstein, in post linked to above:

    HRW’s reports on Israel are frequently either inaccurate, or based on information from eyewitnesses that can’t be verified. And even when HRW is proven wrong about Israel, it absolutely refuses to apologize or retract, although it has done so when it’s come under criticism from pro-Palestinian sources.

    And Bernstein claims I’m being creative!

  32. The UN Watch link from Anne Herzberg is worth visiting. 

    If you think that being into Nazi stuff is cool and transgressive just like being an anti-zionist then you’ll have no problem with any of it.

    But if you think that the international community shouldn’t be relying on the fact-finding and legal interpretations of a guy who gushes over photos and autographs from Hitler you might find it disturbing.

  33. So Garlasco has been suspended temporarily, and the NYT left out much of the information that caused the concerns.

    With the shamelessness that exists these days among the ranks of the progressive left, it takes something really shocking (especially images) to get them to admit wrongdoing – like those Acorn videos, or a photo of Garlasco in an Iron Cross shirt, or screenshots of Garlasco talking about a photo of people saluting Hitler and admiring the medals.

    The misinformation in Garlasco’s Gaza research is more important obviously, but HRW relies on the fact that only supporters of Israel cares enough to bother to look into those.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] nor are they free from doubts, justified or unjustified, as to their impartiality (see here and here). And if we must ultimately choose whom to trust, let us at least admit openly that those whom we […]

  2. The Expressive Function of Flak 88…

    For someone who blogs as much as I do about issues of anti-Semitism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I think I’ve shown admirable restraint in the amount of ink I’ve spilled over the various Human Rights Watch controversies that have sprung up o…

  3. […] Garlasco should do the honorable thing now –resign. And he should do it not for the likes of David Bernstein and the people at NGO Monitor, but for the grievously wronged civilians he has interviewed and […]