Robert Bernstein, the 88 year old founder of Human Rights Watch has recently delivered a lecture condemning the organization he had established for moral failures in its treatment of Israel. These are excerpts from the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights, delivered November 10 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
From the Jerusalem Post:
"I know we all believe in free speech.
We believe in equality for women. We believe in tolerance of each other’s religious beliefs and in an open campus. It seems to me that the State of Israel has all the values we just outlined. It is surrounded by 22 Arab states occupying 99 and a half percent of the land in the Middle East and these states do not share these values. Israel, which occupies less than half of one percent, does share these values.
There is a battle about two things: First, the size of the 23rd state, the new Palestinian state, which at present has many of the same values as the other 22 states. Secondly, the claims of many Arab states, Iran and its proxies Hizbullah and Hamas, about the very legitimacy of the State of Israel.
I don’t think human rights organizations alone can solve this mess but I do wonder about the discussions on many campuses, particularly about Israeli abuses, regardless of what you believe about them, and whether they are constructive.
I don’t see how discussions of Israeli abuses can take such precedence over the kind of state that will be next to Israel. That is, not only internally, although human rights advocates should care about that more than they do, but in its foreign policy toward its neighbor Israel.
He describes how HRW shifted its focus from basic freedoms to warfare:
"It seemed to me that if you talked about freedom of speech, the rights of women, an open education and freedom of religion – that there was only one state in the Middle East that was concerned with those issues. In changing the public debate to issues of war, Human Rights Watch and others in what they described as being evenhanded, described Israel far from being an advocate of human rights, but instead as one of its principal offenders. Like many others, I knew little about the laws of war, Geneva Conventions and international law, and in my high regard for Human Rights Watch, I was certainly inclined to believe what Human Rights Watch was reporting.
However, as I saw Human Rights Watch’s attacks on almost every issue become more and more hostile, I wondered if their new focus on war was accurate."
Describing the build up of arms in Gaza and in Lebanon, and the UN's inability or unwillingness to intervene, Bernstein says
"It is hard for human rights organizations to do anything when war starts. Can anything be more threatening to civilian life than the thought of another war in Gaza? Shouldn’t human rights organizations be talking to the Gazans about the wisdom of their government in rearming? Instead, there is a debate about the blockade of Gaza. The debate over the blockade and whether Israel is achieving the right balance in trying to keep Gaza livable while keeping Gaza unprepared for war is too complicated to discuss here. We do know that a ship, coming from Iran and loaded with sophisticated arms, was apprehended by Israel off the coast. Yet, many visit Gaza and call for a complete lifting of the blockade without mentioning arms.
Human Rights Watch believes the blockade is illegal based on their opinion that Israel and not Hamas controls Gaza. If one believes Hamas controls Gaza, a blockade is a legal way of trying to prevent rearmament.
Hamas’s irresponsible use of arms, even to the point of sacrificing its own citizens as a way to build world sympathy, is well known."