Did we ‘lynch the wrong guy’ at Human Rights Watch?

Watching the scandal spin out of control, Apkon took note of the irony that the pro-Israel community had lynched one of the people at HRW who was most sympathetic to its concerns. “You’re sitting there watching this, and you realize: They’re going after the wrong guy!”

garlasco-iron-cross Do y’all remember Marc Garlasco? He is (or was) the military analyst over at Human Rights Watch whose partiality with respect to reporting on Israel  was called into serious question via the revelation that he just happened to be an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia.

Robt_Bernstein_image_2639 A  report last week (yeah – I’ve been away) in The New Republic detailed some of the internal turmoil at HRW which eventually led to founder Robert Bernstein publicly distancing himself from the organization’s blatant hostility toward Israel. The report by Benjamin Birnbaum chronicles some of the behind the scenes activities which demonstrated a disturbing bias in its reporting, a bias that deeply conflicted with the principles of honesty that Bernstein had brought to the table when he began the organization over thirty years prior.

Birnbaum introduces a broader cast of rather disturbing characters such as Sarah Whitson, who keeps a movie poster in her office “that attempts [sic] to humanize Palestinian suicide bombers,” and who says in one breath that Hamas is wrong for making rocket targets (let alone human shields) out of civilians, and in the next breath that “no one can deny that the pain and destruction that Israel causes cannot be compared to what Hamas is doing.”

Or take Norm Finkelstein, an “avowed Hezbollah supporter who has likened Israel to Nazi Germany,” and who prosecuted a successful campaign to extract an official apology for a press release critical of Palestinian officers.

Goldstone-at-UNHRC-WEB The infamous Richard Goldstone is also cited by Birnbaum as agreeing with Whitson and HRW executive director Ken Roth that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map” were not something worthy of any special attention. They had other fish to fry, you see.

Birnbaum touches as well on some of the other ways a pervasive anti-Israel attitude generally made itself felt at HRW. HRW’s grossly disproportionate reportage of alleged Israeli abuses while giving relatively minimal attention to the far more excessive abuses practiced by regimes such as Libya, Syria, or Iran is characterized by one of their own members as going after the “low-hanging fruit.” In other words, it’s easy to pick on Israel – not so easy to penetrate Iran.

Birnbaum notes HRW’s report on Israel’s 2002 anti-terrorist operation in Jenin deftly ignored Israel’s decision not to use aerial bombardment in order to greatly reduce the potential for civilian casualties, at the cost of greater casualties among its own military personnel. That sort of information defeats the organization’s purpose of demonizing Israel, in case you can’t tell.

Other occasions are cited by Birnbaum where HRW withheld critical information or simply misreported key factual details. Accuracy in reporting does not appear to hold a high priority at HRW.

Birnbaum went on to some length illustrating the gross bias on the part of the organization, but I was caught by surprise as he turned his attention to the Garlasco affair. Not that I was surprised when he delved into it, but that his characterization of it drew a picture indicating Garlasco was really not nearly so much a sworn enemy of Israel as were others within the establishment. Birnbaum’s interviews with advisory committee member Steve Apkon brought out some interesting – and possibly mitigating – details about Garlasco’s background and viewpoints. Even his pre-occupation with Nazi artifacts can be seen in a different light if you consider what Apkon says about Garlasco’s relatively narrow focus as a military analyst. Did he report unfavorably on Israeli activites, as part and parcel of his employment? Yes, of course he did. But Apkon also brings up some things that we didn’t know about Garlasco. That, for instance, owing to his military experience, he at times expressed sympathy for Israeli soldiers with regard to the no-win predicaments in which they continually find themselves. Or that he also (if perhaps too quietly to make an impact) pointed out discrepancies in the way his bosses handled the issue of white phosphorous in combat. He knew it was used not only by Israel, but by the U.S. and Britain, and that it did not necessarily imply a misuse of military technology. Or that in general Garlasco expressed some degree of frustration with HRW’s seeming inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge even the very complexity of war. Birnbaum cites Apkon as going so far as to say Garlasco had already been considering leaving HRW when the scandal broke. The notoriety gained by the exposure of his odd proclivities apparently did little more than to seal the deal.

Do I think Garlasco got a raw deal out of the whole matter? I suppose that depends on whether he ultimately suffered from the exposure, and whether the exposure was uncalled for. My purpose at the time that I  participated in that exposure (not that I harbor illusions of having made a significant impact) was, and still is, to shed light wherever I can into dark corners wherever I spot them. Or to be at least another relay point in the transmission of information when someone else has turned the lights on. And in that, I am convinced more than ever that Human Rights Watch has a lot of dark corners needing illumination.


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