For progressives who are even mildly critical of Israel, a never-ending concern is the response of the Jewish community. Generally, Jews are among the biggest backers of liberal causes. But a common refrain from liberal Jews is that Hamas and Hezbollah represent threats to Israel’s very existence, and so conversations about policy take on an emotional and religious character. “There’s a deep schizophrenia in some of the Jewish community, and people who are at the forefront of every single rights issue, from racial justice in the United States to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur–on Israel, it crumbles, and there is all this hand-wringing,” says Sarahleah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. “And everyone [who is critical] is successfully marginalized.”
The struggle for Jewish hearts and minds explains the latest battle in the ideological war over the Middle East: the firestorm over Human Rights Watch’s reports from the Lebanon war. The New York City-based monitor issued a couple-dozen reports during the conflict, some sharply critical of Israel for killing civilians, and has had to fight a rear-guard action to maintain its standing among American Jews.
The leading human rights organization in the world, HRW has a dry and thorough manner that reflects its executive director, lawyer Kenneth Roth, who is given to tweezerlike fact-finding and incisive conclusions, with a moral backbeat. The restrained tone has allowed HRW to grow by half in the past five years and stay firmly in the mainstream. When I asked him if he had a special connection to the New York Times, which frequently cites its reports, Roth quipped, “There’s a phone in the drawer.”
HRW has often been critical of Israel while showing respect for its security concerns. For instance, it has condemned suicide bombing as a war crime and also assailed Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank. On July 12 the Lebanon war began, and soon escalated into a wholesale air attack by Israel on Lebanon (and, yes, a rain of Hezbollah rockets on civilian targets in Israel). HRW’s first critics were the left, which felt HRW was twiddling its thumbs as hundreds died, when it alluded delicately to “potential violations of international humanitarian law” in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. HRW did not issue more forceful statements in the first two weeks of the war, Roth says, because its two researchers couldn’t get into southern Lebanon. Once they got there and spent two days visiting villages, HRW issued a fifty-page report August 3, accusing Israel of war crimes in its “indiscriminate” bombings. The researchers had documented more than a third of the reported civilian deaths at that time and could show that in none of 153 killings were Hezbollah forces or weapons “in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.” HRW alleged a war crime after it visited Qana, the scene of twenty-eight civilian deaths on July 30. There Israeli missiles had hit a three-story house in which people were sheltering. Israeli officials later stated that rocket fire had originated from the village three days before the attack.
HRW’s statements got international news coverage (if only two paragraphs in the Times) but put the group in the cross hairs of the Israel lobby, notably in the New York Sun. The Sun linked Ken Roth with Mel Gibson as an enemy of the Jewish people and said his moral compass was “haywire.” It is tempting to dismiss the four-year-old Sun–whose most memorable contribution to American letters has been its statement that Iraq War protesters were guilty of “treason”–as a right-wing rag. Its backers include Manhattan Institute former chair Roger Hertog and Bruce Kovner, chair of the American Enterprise Institute. But Kovner is also chair of Juilliard, and the Sun is a sophisticated newspaper, with extensive arts and sports coverage. As managing editor Ira Stoll says, the Sun has influence; it represents the views of organized Jewish leaders. Among the Sun‘s readers, says Stoll, are some of HRW’s biggest financial backers. Indeed, in an editorial the Sun said that Robert Bernstein, HRW’s former chair, was having “private agonies” over the group’s reports and quoted Morton Zuckerman, listed as a donor of between $25,000 and $99,000 in HRW’s 2005 report, as saying the reports on Israel were an “outrage…. Human Rights Watch has lost all moral credibility.”