Human Rights Watch, the world’s preeminent monitor of how governments treat people within their borders, has found that Israelis are guilty of apartheid.
This is far more than a rhetorical charge, detailed over 213 pages in the language of a legal dossier. Long associated with white oppression of Blacks in South Africa apartheid is, in fact, a crime against humanity, outlined in the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The statute defines apartheid as inhumane acts “committed in the context of an institutionalized oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with maintaining that regime.”
I have been involved in Human Rights Watch — HRW — since its earliest days in the 1970s. I am married to its first press director, and was an active member for 12 years of its international board, on which I am now emeritus.
In 1968, I made my first visit to Israel and have been there many times since as a reporter, editor and publisher.
For Jews like me who have both a passion for human rights and a deep concern for Israel and Judaism, this is a very serious moment. What does it mean for Israel to be in the same category as countries like Sudan, Liberia, Rwanda, and war-time Serbia that have been the subject of international prosecution for comparable crimes against humanity?
Was there any other way for HRW to deal with this issue — after all, it has been more than a half century in the making? And what will be the consequences of this judgment now?
Beyond the stunning headline, how many people will read the entire report as I was able to do in the past few days?
I cannot answer these questions yet. But I can reflect on the history of the matter and why — personally, politically and professionally — I am troubled.
The report is the product of years of research, and documents in detail the ways the 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are subjected to systematic abuse by the Israeli authorities who captured these territories in the 1967 War. Over the half-century since, efforts to reach a settlement of occupation issues have failed and Israel’s grasp of these lands has become increasingly tighter.
The report was written by Omar Shakir – an HRW researcher who Israel expelled from the country in 2019 — edited by Eric Goldstein, a longstanding leader in the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Division, endorsed by Kenneth Roth, the group’s long-time executive director and released with the knowledge of its board of directors.
After I informed HRW staff that I intended to write about the report, board members reached out to me, clearly uneasy about what I might say. I assured them that it was not my intention to dispute the report’s findings. There will be others who doubtless will take that on.
I do want to consider the implications of this indictment of Israel for the country’s position in the world, the probable impact on the diaspora, especially in the United States and whether, ultimately, it will make a difference to Israel, the Palestinian people or the standing of HRW.
‘He went to the Gulag and I went home’
I was born in India in 1943 to Jews who escaped Poland after the Nazi invasion four years earlier. We were secular, but acutely aware that our family’s life and destiny was defined by our religious designation.
Among the many books by Israeli authors I have published are four by Natan Sharansky, who I met in Moscow in the 1970s, when I was a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. The KGB accused him of treason and said I was his CIA handler. He went to the Gulag for nine years, and I went home.
While working on my own forthcoming memoir, “An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen,” I made my third visit to Auschwitz, and found among the scrolls of Jews who had perished during the war 17 people named “Osnos” and eight with my mother’s original name, Bychowski. “Seeing the remnants of the hundreds of thousands of Jews executed there,” I wrote in the book, which will be published in June, “I had a better sense of why so many Israelis take the position of ‘Never Again.’”
Global human rights as an extension of civil rights
To understand the significance of HRW’s unequivocal judgment about Israeli crimes against humanity, a brief history of the organization and its approach to Israel is necessary.
The group was born out of an agreement generally known as the Helsinki Accords signed in July 1975 by 35 European nations, the United States and Canada. The document covered territorial boundaries in Europe, economic relations and human rights.
I was one of a handful of reporters who kept tabs on the negotiations. By complete coincidence — which, I have to add, had no effect on my reporting — my father-in-law, Albert W. Sherer, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, served as their American delegate. His part-time role reflected the relatively low priority Washington gave to the accords, though President Gerald Ford attended the summit in Helsinki as part of what was known at the time as Détente with the Kremlin.
A Helsinki monitoring group led by the great Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov was created in Moscow and used the accord as a framework for demanding political reforms. Members of the group were eventually jailed, expelled from the country or sent into internal exile, as Sakharov was. By contrast, in the U.S, the advocacy of global human rights was a natural extension of the civil rights and anti-war movements that had made an impact on the country’s political and social order.
In 1978, Helsinki Watch was founded in New York by Robert L. Bernstein — then the chairman of Random House — and Orville Schell, a prominent lawyer. Aryeh Neier of the American Civil Liberties Union was named executive director. A substantial seed grant came from the Ford Foundation.
Over the next decade, divisions were added to deal with Central and Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and eventually the United States, as well as thematic areas such as the rights of women and children. No longer a working journalist, I was able to join the board of directors.
Every country held to the same standard
What made HRW stand out over time among other advocacy organizations was the quality of its research on the ground and it became increasingly influential with governments and public opinion and trusted by the media. The group never took government or corporate money, and many of its major donors, especially in the early years. happened to be Jewish.
Irene Diamond’s 15-year pledge of $30 million dollars was particularly important. And there were many others, a number of whom served on the board of directors. Bernstein, the publisher, was chair until 1998, when he was followed by Jonathan Fanton, then the president of New School University.
As HRW evolved, it insisted that every country, from the smallest to the largest be held to the same international standards. This precise formulation – allowing for no special circumstances among the countries – is at the core of what became the tension within the organization about Israel, As a democracy in the Middle East, surrounded from the outset by nations and groups that advocated its destruction, Israeli leaders maintained that its national security was an existential priority, and that should be accepted as policy, not to be challenged.
After the 1967 war and Israel’s taking of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, it soon became the focus of criticism forwhat even Israel’s own military acknowledged was “occupation” of these Palestinian people and their lands. The United Nations passed a resolution in 1975 declaring that Zionism “is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” a resolution that stood until it was revoked in 1991.
In 2009, Bernstein, by then chairman-emeritus of HRW, wrote an OpEd in The New York Times saying the organization “had been issuing reports on the Arab-Israel conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
Bernstein quickly became something of a pariah himself within the group that he had founded. It was not until March 2019, just a short time before Bernstein died at 96, that he reconciled with the organization, and received a round of applause at its gala dinner in New York.
But Bernstein’s standing with HRW was never restored. His public denunciation was considered unforgivable and his continued insistence that HRW was unfair to Israel was perceived by many of its staff and directors as an unwelcome distraction from its broader goals.
I believe, although cannot provide documented proof, that Bernstein’s position and its aftermath probably cost HRW millions from Jewish donors. On the other hand, George Soros — who is, of course, also Jewish — made a 10-year, $100-million challenge grant that has only recently run out. It had an enormous effect on the scale and staffing of the organization.
As an emeritus member, I joined a March 18 Zoom plenary where the HRW board heard an off-the-record presentation of the report by Shakir, Goldstein and Roth.
After absorbing what I had heard, I called Goldstein to discuss the report. He sent me 35 pages of quotes and articles in which Israel and apartheid are linked. The first was from Michael Ben-Yan-Yair, Israel’s attorney general from the 1993-1996, who wrote that after 1967, “in effect we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture … that oppressive regime exists to this day.”
The point, clearly, is that use of the term ‘apartheid’ in connection with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is an accepted concept. The difference is that this report – in detail, length and tone – could be the basis for sanctions against Israel wherever and however they can be applied.
What are the likely repercussions?
There is already a significant Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel on college campuses and in some civil society groups. These will doubtless be strengthened by the evidence contained in HRW’s report. The indictment by a group with such credibility will be harder for Israel’s government – under the intractable leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu – to refute.
Governments and even Jewish groups — especially in the United States — that are critical of Israel will claim justification for their assertions. Antisemitism, which has been rising in recent years, particularly in the far-right-wing politics of the Trump era, is likely to gain further traction.
The United States’ Jewish population – about 7.5 million people, or 2.4% of the country’s total – will need to grapple with what has become its most deeply divisive issue. Israel, a source of pride and hope at its founding in 1948, is now a feature of America’s broader political divide. There is virtually no common policy ground on the Palestinian issue remaining between the stance of, say, AIPAC and J-Street, although a true challenge to Israel’s existence would probably unify Jews everywhere. How seriously is HRW’s judgment to be taken as that challenge?
Among the questions, I asked myself in recent weeks: How does Israel’s demonstrated treatment of the Palestinians differ from Germany’s persecution of Jews in the 1930s — not the Holocaust itself, but the laws and practices that led to it?
Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, historians are still debating the role of Germany’s population in supporting Hitler and fighting World War II. How will a future generation of scholars judge Israeli Jews who serve in the military that enforces what HRW now calls apartheid and continues to vote for right-wing parties that uphold it?
Can Israel’s Jewish citizens also be held to account, morally if not legally?
Underestimated in the attitudes toward Israel in the diaspora, I believe, is that it is only one life-time – mine – since the annihilation of European Jews was taking place. For too many American Jews at the time, the reaction was muted. History shows the depth and intransigence of antisemitism. It may be, in medical terms, in remission. But it is not gone.
On the other hand — because in profound issues of Judaism, there is almost always an other hand — Israel as a country is in very good shape. Its economy is strong, confidence in the military’s ability to provide protection is great. Covert and open pressure on Iran is accepted, even by most of the country’s liberal activists.
Practically, Israel has come to terms with its neighbors in Egypt, Jordan and several Gulf Arab states because of shared enmity over Iran. The Palestinian split between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah party that dominates the West Bank leadership means that any agreements are difficult to maintain. The accord and hopes for Camp David, Oslo and the Wye Plantation came and went without long- term success.
It is far too early to know whether the HRW report will shift the balance in Israel. For all the agreement among the country’s left and human-rights groups, they are a distinct minority in Israel without a leader of the caliber of Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu is under criminal indictment, after all, and in the process of coalition- building, including this time the possibility of an Arab-Israeli party in the Knesset.
What is my personal view of the Human Rights Watch report and its impact? I think it will probably make matters worse and is very unlikely to make things better.
Peter Osnos is the founder of PublicAffairs Books and co-publisher of Platform Books, which is publishing his memoir, “An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen,” on June 1.
HRW report on Israel likely to cause more problems than it solves