In certain circles, the very name, Human Rights Watch, has become a profanity. There are those convinced that this is an organization set on attacking Israel unmercifully and disproportionately. Among these people is even Bob Bernstein who founded the group in the 1970s and recently left in protest to start Advancing Human Rights, which he says is a corrective to an organization that has lost its moral compass.
I won’t go in to the few mistakes HRW has made to bring this criticism down on its own head (remember the Nazi memorabilia collector who was working in their Middle East division?), but suffice it to say they have sometimes not made the job of their defenders easy.
Still, it does surprise me how compartmentalized the minds of their critics can be, such that they find it impossible to commend or acknowledge HRW when they do something evenhanded or that upsets the caricature of them as blindly pro-Palestinian.
Today, for example, the group issued a strongly worded press release directed at Hamas and the Palestinian Authority calling on them to investigate attacks against two Palestinian human rights workers. Here’s a summary of the two cases as presented by HRW:
In Gaza, Mahmud Abu Rahma, the international relations director for Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, a Palestinian rights group, was stabbed repeatedly on the night of January 13, 2012, by masked assailants, after being beaten by a group of unidentified men on January 3. The attacks followed his public criticism of Hamas and the impunity of armed groups in Gaza. Al Mezan had previously informed Hamas of death threats against him. In the West Bank, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security agency beat Yazan Sawafta, a lawyer and researcher for the Independent Commission for Human Rights on January 9, according to a statement by the group. Sawafta had been covering a demonstration by relatives of prisoners detained by the PA.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, had strong words for both Hamas and the PA, demanding that they bring to justice the perpetrators. And in the PA’s case, she even asked Western countries funding the PA’s security forces — accused here of an attack on Sawafta for his work documenting their abuses — to do more to ensure the PA “don’t abuse their own people.”
From my — admittedly unscientific — search through google news, I could find no Western news source covering the attack on Mahmud Abu Rahma and none at all covering what happened to Yazan Sawafta.
All I turned up was the HRW press release.
I also didn’t find any statements from any of the various groups lambasting HRW on a regular basis, like NGO Monitor, commending the human rights group for taking a stand on an issue of Palestinian human rights (as HRW actually does fairly often, as you can see for yourselves in this wide array of reports).
But maybe this omission is not so surprising. It’s easier for these critics to imagine that HRW sees the Middle East in as black and white terms as its critics tend to — much easier than acknowledging what seems to me a fairly equally opportunity attitude when it comes to calling out human rights violators in the region.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “ When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, ” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman