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January 24, 2003

Editorialist Misreads Human Rights Report’s Focus on U.S., Israel

The editorialist seems willfully to have misunderstood why Human Rights Watch began its 2003 World Report with a discussion of the United States (“Human Rights Dodge,” January 17).

The Forward asserts that “America is not the world’s leading abuser,” as if Human Rights Watch suggested it is. In fact, the report explicitly rejects such a view, stating: “This is hardly to say that Washington is among the worst human rights abusers.”

But if that is so, why does Human Rights Watch direct our attention at the very beginning of its annual report to American behavior? Because it sensibly believes that Washington’s obsession with terrorism has led it to devalue human rights, and that devaluing in turn will actually impede the anti-terrorism effort.

In the long term, the development of a human rights culture around the world is the surest antidote to the pathology of terrorism. But rather than recognizing that human rights and security are mutually reinforcing goals, “too often Washington treats them as a zero sum game.”

The report details the many places around the world where Washington, in search of a quick anti-terrorism fix, perversely sees human rights as an obstacle to its goals, refusing to confront Russia regarding its abuses in Chechnya, or rejecting the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of its own citizens or opposing the Optional Protocols on Torture.

The editorialist’s complaint that the report’s Israel section, at 2,600 words, is “twice the length of most other countries,” is also misleading. The section on Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinian Authority-governed territories is about 7,500 words. But what does the length signify?

The region is of intense interest to much of the world and Human Rights Watch has done a great deal of reporting on it, most recently a long and critical report on suicide bombers. Criticize the reporting if you will and if you can — discrediting any of the facts in Human Rights Watch reporting is extremely rare — but not on the basis of a word count.

Finally, what does the Forward mean by charging that human rights violations of Israel and the United States have been “lumped together with Congolese atrocities?” Lumped together in the sense that they are included in the same report, a report that addresses human rights performance in 58 countries?

Is the Forward suggesting that Human Right Watch should publish two annual reports, one covering bad behavior and the other covering really bad behavior? Or that the readers of the report will merely look at its table of contents and not bother to read the carefully drawn portraits included?

In addition to counting words, that seems to be what the Forward is doing.

Kathleen Peratis

Member

Board of Directors

Human Rights Watch

New York, N.Y.

When Is Criticism of Israel Antisemitic?

Let the pot beware of calling the kettle black! Opinion writer Robert Horenstein’s objection to the “selective” criticism of Israel has a counterpart in his selective concern about antisemitism (“Selective Condemnation of Jewish State is Antisemitic,” January 10).

At the moment, Islamophobia is far more widespread in the United States, and even discrimination against African Americans is still far more prevalent. I would like to see the Forward be concerned about all forms of racism, with antisemitism merely being one among many.

Meanwhile, labeling criticism of Israel as antisemitic has become such a routine way of trying to deter it that it no longer means anything. I suppose Rabbis for Human Rights, Gush Shalom and B’Tselem are all antisemitic?

Miriam Reik

New York, N.Y.

For Robert Horenstein, the worst things for which Israel can be legitimately criticized are “policy blunders and tactical errors.” But how about the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, the destruction of their villages, the institution of discriminatory laws against non-Jews and the confiscation of Arab land within Israel and in the territories ? Were these also policy blunders and tactical errors? Or were these deliberate policies required to permit the establishment and the maintenance of the Jewish state?

Elias Davidsson

Reykjavik, Iceland

Opinion writer Gideon Maltz argues that the singling out of Israel for criticism is a legitimate result of identification with the Palestinians, just as it was legitimate to criticize South Africa under apartheid while ignoring human rights abuses in Uganda (“Singling Out Israel Doesn’t Evidence a Double Standard,” January 10).

However, the most troubling criticism of Israel today — the type that is perceived as antisemitism — does not focus on specific Israeli policies or actions, but questions Israel’s very right to exist. While this may have been effective — and even necessary — in South Africa, which was clearly an illegitimate regime, denying the legitimacy of Israel is to deny the Jewish people a state. Disagreeing with and condemning specific policies is one thing. When that condemnation, however, denies the Jews a right to live in security in their own state, that is a double standard that should not be tolerated.

Estee Yaari

Jerusalem, Israel

Gideon Maltz is speaking rhetorically, but not truthfully. As many of us know, one can argue successfully on behalf of any side of a controversy, such as when defending a litigant or someone accused before the law.

But that is not the same as coming to grips with the truth. One must ask: Where in Maltz’s opinion article does he mention a truth that most Jews now accept as irrefutable: That Israel is fighting to retain its land against a 54-year onslaught by the Arabs, who seek to destroy the Jewish state?

If one accepts this truth, then those who “imagine themselves” as Palestinians are logically also seeking the destruction of the Jewish state, which is anti-Zionism reduced to its purest form.

As Jews, we should never defend singling out anyone, let alone our own people. Isn’t that the greatest lesson the world should have learned from the Holocaust?

Gary Frankford

Portland, Oregon

Gideon Maltz is himself “fundamentally misguided” when he charges those of us in the Jewish community with believing that the world’s over-focus on Israel is wrong.

The fixation on Israel is not coming from empathy but from unethical behavior of one sort or another. Sometimes it comes from historically antisemitic countries in Europe and the Arab world. Sometimes it comes from the irresponsible United Nations. It is not well-intentioned behavior, it is wrong behavior.

Focusing on Israel’s behavior in the world is like focusing on one of the weakest kids in the schoolyard, waiting for him to make a mistake and then pronouncing it over the loudspeakers. This conveniently removes the spotlight from the bystanders and makes everybody except that kid feel just a little better.

Eugen Tarnow

Fair Lawn, N.J.

Robert Horenstein’s and Gideon Maltz’s paired articles on condemnation of Israel suggest once again — but do not answer — the most sensitive question with respect to anti-Zionism: Is any and all anti-Israel rhetoric considered to be antisemitism?

The question is one of threshold, and on this the Yiddish expression “Alles in eynem is nisht-do bei keynem” — “Ya can’t satisfy everybody” — is operative. I would suggest a basic approach to the question: Criticism of the policies and actions of the Israeli government — indeed, harsh criticism — is entirely legitimate.

The point at which such rhetoric becomes antisemitism is the point at which the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise, and by extension of the existence of the State of Israel, is challenged, because it is at this point that the legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood is called into question. This, tautologically, is antisemitism.

Jerome Chanes

Adjunct Professor

Barnard College

New York, N.Y.

Comedian’s Ethnic Gag Meant To Discomfort

When a comedian dares to use a reference to an ethnic group not his or her own, people get offended. Sarah Silverman caught flak for a joke about trying to get out of jury duty by writing, instead of “I hate Chinks” on her jury-duty form, “I love Chinks” (“Is America Ready for Sarah Silverman?”, January 3).

Who doesn’t get that Silverman’s gag was a twist on the old line, “Some of my best friends are Jewish… really”? Her joke speaks to the self-consciousness, and general cluelessness, ethnic groups often have toward each other. It skewers prejudice; it doesn’t promote it.

Imagine if Silverman’s fictional jury-duty form read like this: “I love Jews.” The point would be the same, but would we Jews laugh at it because she’s Jewish? If Silverman makes us uncomfortable, maybe we need to be.

Kim Phillips

Nashville, Tenn.

When I was a youngster, growing up in the Bronx, and later in Queens, I would go to the Gaiety Burlesque to see such worthies as Mike Sachs and Hank Henry regale me with their best raunchy material.

Sex had its place, and I still believe the burlesque houses filled the bill most adequately. But Sarah Silverman should know that raunchy material is the sign of a lazy mind, incapable of otherwise inventing bright and clever humor.

Proof of my contention is readily available in recordings of the old radio shows by Jack Benny and Bob Hope, among others. Times have definitely changed, but raunchy, down-and-dirty jokes are still a poor substitute for fresh, genuinely funny material.

Irv Jacobs

San Diego, Calif.

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