In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet bloc and the Arab league combined forces in the United Nations to promote antisemitism and demonize Israel. This crescendoed into the infamous 1975 UN resolution labeling Zionism as racism.
By the 1990s, the hatred had spread to powerful political organizations working under the banners of human rights and international law. In particular, the propaganda war against the Jewish state was and continues to be led by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an NGO superpower working in close cooperation with other groups, including some in Israel. In 2009, HRW founder Robert Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, criticized his own organization for helping “to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
HRW’s latest contribution to the anti-Israel agenda was launched on Tuesday under the heading of “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” With an annual budget of almost $100 million (including some long-hidden donations such as from a corrupt Saudi billionaire), the organization was able to gain a great deal of publicity and media coverage.
The headlines highlight the disingenuous equivalence that HRW draws between Israel and the South African apartheid regime. HRW’s publication has 200 references to apartheid — approximately once per page — interspersed among false accusations and distorted (or invented) versions of international law, many of which were copied directly from other NGOs. HRW attacks everything from Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, enacted in the shadow of the Holocaust, to counter-terror measures, which, they claim, are used “to advance demographic objectives” and “have no legitimate security justifications.” This claim is made easier by the fact that they fail to mention decades of Palestinian terror against Israeli victims.
Why has HRW focused so much money and energy on viciously targeting Israel for more than 20 years? The answer is Kenneth Roth, who has led HRW since 1993 and is the driving force behind the organization’s obsession with Israel. Roth has not hidden his strong anti-Zionist compulsion. In 2004, an Israeli journalist asked him, “What’s a good Jewish boy from Chicago doing at the helm of HRW, the famous NGO that many accuse of singling out the Jewish state?” Roth did not deny his hostility towards Israel, but instead referred to his father’s “stories of life in Nazi Germany until he fled in summer 1938.” For many years, Roth’s official HRW biography cited his father’s experience in Germany, as if this somehow explained singling out Israel for attack.
In addition to his obscure personal factors, Roth also promotes an condescending worldview known as post-colonialism that automatically treats supposed victims of the West as innocents who can do no wrong, in contrast to the West — particularly the United States — which he always paints as guilty. After 1967, when Israel was no longer in danger of being destroyed by Arab armies, was receiving increased support from the United States and became an “occupier,” the Jewish state became a primary target for the post-colonialists, including Roth.
The Jewish state became a primary target for the post-colonialists, including Roth.
Many years ago, Roth also understood the value in comparing Israel to the heinous South African apartheid regime. He sent HRW officials to play a central role in the 2001 UN Conference in Durban, South Africa and defended this comparison as part of the organization’s agenda of countering what he referred to, even then, as “Israeli racist practices.” In interviews and on Twitter (Roth posts every hour, seven days a week), he frequently promotes the apartheid and racism theme. In 2017, after the white supremacist march and violence in Charlottesville, Roth tweeted a link to a propaganda piece headlined “Birds of a feather: White supremacy and Zionism.” He included a picture depicting a Confederate and Israeli flag, commenting, “Many rights activists condemn Israeli abuse & antisemitism. Some white supremacists embrace Israel & antisemitism.”
Over the years, Roth has also hired a number of experienced and dedicated anti-Israel activists, such as Sarah Leah Whitson, who was born in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City (then under Jordanian occupation). Her family reportedly moved to the United States in 1960, but for whatever reason, her anti-Israel passion, often crossing the line into antisemitism, is well-entrenched. Prior to joining HRW in 2004 and heading their BDS campaign, she had been active with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and, even then, ran campaigns attacking Israeli “apartheid” and its “matrix of control.” (Whitson also raised money in Saudi Arabia and suddenly left HRW in early 2020 when those details were leaked.)
In 2016, Roth and Whitson hired Omar Shakir — the lead author of HRW’s “apartheid” publication. Shakir is also deeply and personally invested in vilifying Israel and spent many years as a campus activist speaking under headings like “Apartheid IsReal.” He has led HRW’s (failed) effort to press Airbnb and the FIFA soccer association to join the anti-Israel boycott. For Shakir, who left Israel after his work visa was not renewed and he lost a lengthy court battle, this is revenge propaganda.
But perhaps this time, Roth, Shakir and HRW overshot their target. After the report was criticized in media reports, such as in Le Point (often quoting NGO Monitor), they tried to spin the message, claiming that they were not actually comparing Israel to South Africa but instead were using a new definition of apartheid. But with the long history, the 200 references and the title, even an NGO superpower will have trouble selling that canard.
Gerald Steinberg is emeritus professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, and heads the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem.