Letter to Ken Roth: Demonizing Israel by Exploiting the Holocaust

Your latest diatribe on Israel, published in Deutsche Welle (“Opinion: Reassessing the approach to Israel”), continues the deceitful assault on the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination.
May 31, 2023
Former United Nations Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth speaks at a press conference at UN headquarters on January 14, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Your latest diatribe on Israel, published in Deutsche Welle (“Opinion: Reassessing the approach to Israel”), continues the deceitful assault on the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination. Following your practice for over twenty years, you deploy your father’s experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany (until 1938) as a shield against scrutiny and criticism. Artificially invoking the language of morality, universal human rights and international law, you continue to pervert these fundamental principles.

As a Jew and an Israeli, whose parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins also “experienced” the inhumanity of the Nazis (unlike your father, many did not survive), I find your exploitation of the Holocaust to be regrettable and worse. The use of Deutsche Welle, the state-owned German media platform funded by the federal tax budget, is particularly repugnant.

Under your leadership, Human Rights Watch (HRW) was at the forefront of the campaigns to weaken, isolate, and ultimately dismantle Israel as a Jewish state. The objects of your rage are not policies in the territories under Israeli jurisdiction since the 1967 war (the “occupation”); nor do you demonstrate any concern for Palestinians, whose leaders are corrupt dictators and terror leaders. Instead, under the label of human rights, your goal is to erase my country – where some 8 million Jews have made homes and chart our own destinies, like the citizens of 190 other independent countries.

As demonstrated at the infamous antisemitic 2001 UN Durban Conference, you and HRW are leaders in attacking the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, including the current “Israel apartheid” campaign, which is an extension of the abhorrent Soviet-led 1975 UN General Assembly resolution demonizing Zionism as racism. After the demise of the Soviet empire, you and HRW adopted the same language and mechanisms. Among many blatant examples throughout the past two decades, in 2017, you endorsed an article titled, “Birds of a feather: White supremacy and Zionism,” which declared that “White supremacy and Zionism are two of a kind.” When HRW’s founder Robert Bernstein denounced you in the New York Times and elsewhere for abusing the organization and human rights in the campaign to turn Israel into a pariah state, he was referring to these actions.

Your Deutsche Welle piece repeats the blatant distortions and exploits the suffering of South Africans under the real apartheid. In contrast to this sophistry, the campaign to brand Israel an “apartheid” state has no foundation under the façade of international law. The clear objective is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, which would return the Jewish people to the status of statelessness and vulnerability.

In contrast to your “apartheid” refrain, mentioned six times in this essay, you somehow fail to mention 75 years of Palestinian and other terror attacks even once. You conveniently erase the tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli children and families – each is a war crime. You pretend to recognize Israel’s need for a formidable military, but the flood of condemnations during the 30 years in which you led HRW prove those sentiments to be a fig-leaf to cloak your obsession. At HRW, you employed a series of fellow haters to write fake “reports” and press releases promoting boycotts (BDS) singling out Israel, and targeting Israel’s banks, athletic clubs, Airbnb and Ben & Jerry’s. Through repeated and false allegations of war crimes, your team also lobbies for arms embargoes and indictments of Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In the spirit of Soviet agitprop, you write “Netanyahu and his ilk have constructed a state that is strong,” – another cheap shot to malign 75 years of Israeli independence. Netanyahu was born 18 months after Israel’s founding in May 1948. His predecessors constructed a safe haven for millions of Jews, including many who survived or escaped the Holocaust, and their descendants, with the strength necessary to withstand continuous assaults. And you also know but refuse to acknowledge over one million non-Jewish citizens – Christians, Muslims, Druze, and others, including judges, doctors, soldiers, police officers, political leaders, and in countless other roles. No Ken, there is no apartheid – it is malicious “fake news” (modern antisemitism).

You then pretend to speak for Jews through Deutsche Welle, proclaiming from your faux human rights pedestal that Israel is “not good for the Jews of the world,” as if you have any connection with this community. In fact, your actions as head of HRW during the past 30 years have clearly been “not good for the Jews of the world,” to understate the reality of the pain you have inflicted. On your lengthy watch as a self-proclaimed high priest of human rights, HRW systematically ignored antisemitism, as in the 2022 World Report (covering 2021) with no mention of attacks against Jewish targets in the US. (In case you missed it, the Anti-Defamation League reported 2,717 antisemitic incidents in 2021 – the highest total since the organization began tracking in 1979. In 2021 (2,024 incidents) the World Report also made no mention of antisemitism. Mr Human Rights Ken Roth heard nothing, saw nothing and said nothing. And, unsurprisingly, your essay in Deutsche Welle has no mention of antisemitism.

Instead, and hiding behind “your father’s experience in Germany in the 1930s,” your behavior has actively contributed to and amplified anti-Jew hatred. In 2006, after Israel responded to a Hezbollah attack that killed a number of civilians and kidnapped the bodies of two soldiers, you referred to the counter-attack as “An eye for an eye – or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye – may have been the morality of some more primitive moment…” Beyond displaying your ignorance of 2000 years of Jewish texts, you echoed some key themes of theological antisemitism and delegitimization of Judaism. The same is true for your July 2021 tweet, blaming the victims (Jews and Israel for hate: “The surge in UK antisemitic incidents during the recent Gaza conflict gives the lie to those who pretend that the Israeli government’s conduct doesn’t affect antisemitism.” You eventually deleted the post, claiming you were merely “misunderstood.”

In contrast to the pretense of concern for the welfare of the Jews of the world, you also agitate vocally against acceptance of the working definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which, many believe, will help to protect Jewish communities. Your twitter feed has numerous examples, including denouncing the German parliament (Bundestag) for supporting a resolution that cites this text in declaring the BDS movement to be an expression of antisemitism. And following the January 9 2015 assault on a kosher supermarket in France, during which four Jews were murdered and several held hostage, the French Minister of Justice endorsed a “systematic, adapted and individualized” approach to combating antisemitic and other types of hate speech, and speech glorifying terrorism. HRW responded with two publications accompanied by a June submission to the UN Human Rights Council asserting, without any evidence, that such measures are “likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in France, weaken[s] its credibility as a country that stands up for freedom of expression and set[s] a dangerous example for governments that are quick to use counterterrorism laws to silence their critics.”

I do not claim to understand the reasons for the personal agenda that is responsible for at least 30 years of loathing. Millions of Jews, including the post-Holocaust generations whose parents and grandparents learned the lessons of the “experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany”, struggle with the responsibilities of self-determination, and ongoing threats of annihilation. In contrast, you have chosen to pursue obsessive hatred, demonization and antisemitism. Essays manipulating the language of human rights will not change this legacy.

Gerald M Steinberg is professor of political science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor.

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