Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ken Roth

It’s Time for HRW’s Ken Roth to Go

Ken Roth has now been executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than two decades; indeed, he has become an institution there. But if HRW is going to retain any credibility, it is time to demand Roth resign or be fired.

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Ken Roth has now been executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than two decades; indeed, he has become an institution there. But if HRW is going to retain any credibility, it is time to demand Roth resign or be fired.

Here’s the problem: On October 22, a car driven by a known Hamas activist slammed into a light rail stop, injuring several Israelis and Americans, and killing a three-month-old girl. The driver of the car tried then to flee on foot, but was shot (and has since succumbed to his wounds). Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. Seems pretty cut-and-dried. Not to Roth, who wasted no time casting doubt.

This is what Roth had to say on Twitter:

“Palestinian deadly crash into train stop. Israel calls it ‘terrorist attack…typical of Hamas’ http://trib.al/EIkJp01 

To call the attack in Jerusalem simply a car crash is like calling the 9/11 attacks a plane crash, or to call ISIS’s enslavement and rape of Yezidi women as mere groping. The contempt with which Roth holds Israel is legendary. Five years ago, its founding chairman even took to the New York Times to lament HRW’s bias and politicization under Roth.

Let us, for a moment, consider that maybe the cause of the crash was uncertain and that Hamas hadn’t claimed responsibility. Seth Mandel has addressed some of the shoddy press reporting of the incident. But a serious human-rights organization and its executive director should do more than regurgitate instant press headlines. Cognizant of its reputation and wanting its statements to carry moral weight, it should slowly and carefully gather evidence before speaking. It is this sense of process that Roth once may have understood but now eschews.

While Roth’s tweets and statements about Israel and the Palestinians often take a polemical if not unhinged tone, they are only the tip of the iceberg. In early September, I compared a series of Roth’s tweets to each other and to HRW’s reporting regarding a massacre in Egypt and came to the unfortunate conclusion that Roth appeared to simply make up numbers as the politics suited him. Roth’s tenure is also marked by an incident in which his employee Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use Saudi money donated to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” Take Roth’s inaction in that incident as an endorsement of her conspiratorial worldview. Under Roth, HRW also partnered with Al-Karama, a group whose founder ended up being designated an al-Qaeda financier. Rather than rescind, reinvestigate, and, if necessary, revise the reports in which Roth and HRW used the tainted information, Roth did nothing.

Directly because of Roth’s leadership, his statements, his decisions, and his tweets, HRW now is much less of a human-rights organization, and is instead a shrill and biased political advocacy group. This is a shame, because there is much human-rights work to be done. But so long as Roth tweets first and asks questions later and allows his Twitter feed to demonstrate a deep personal bias, then HRW cannot accomplish its mission. If Roth truly cares about the organization over which he has presided for 21 years, it is time for him to leave. If he does not have the grace to do so, then the onus is on HRW to let him go and start the hard work of rebuilding its reputation and instituting safeguards to ensure that never again will its employees’ political projects trump methodology and process.

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The Media and Anti-Semitism

This week is unfortunately a bit of a perfect storm of conditions that foster anti-Semitism. The High Holidays are approaching, Israel has just fought a war of self-defense, and new terrorist organizations are gaining a foothold in Western societies. Israel’s national Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued its travel warning for the season, expressing concern over the usual suspects as well as Western Europe. New York hasn’t been immune to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and last week Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed a finger at the media:

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This week is unfortunately a bit of a perfect storm of conditions that foster anti-Semitism. The High Holidays are approaching, Israel has just fought a war of self-defense, and new terrorist organizations are gaining a foothold in Western societies. Israel’s national Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued its travel warning for the season, expressing concern over the usual suspects as well as Western Europe. New York hasn’t been immune to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and last week Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed a finger at the media:

“When (the media) cover something, it tends to attract more attention,” Bratton told reporters following a security briefing for the Jewish High Holy Days at police headquarters.

“But we have seen this before, that when there’s attention paid to an issue, that it brings this about,” Bratton continued. “And when there’s continued attention — and the issue in Gaza, where it stretched over several weeks — we could see a continuing increase.”

Hate crimes are up, according to the city. Bratton tried to downplay recent incidents as “lone wolf” events, though New York State homeland security commissioner Jerome Hauer countered that “Anti-Semitism is rising at a rate we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and I think it will continue to grow.”

Anyone who followed Western coverage of the war in Gaza won’t be too surprised. But Bratton’s comments weren’t ill-phrased off-the-cuff remarks; they were part of a clear message from the NYPD on the role of the press in the uptick in hate crimes. Deputy Chief Michael Osgood focused a bit more on the correlation:

“On July first, the Gaza Strip becomes a major news story and stays consistent in the media through July and August, every single day, every single morning, front page of the New York Times, front page of the Wall Street Journal,” he said.

Around this time, “the group ISIS becomes a major news story and they stay consistent in the news media, [and] that creates what I call an emotional surge.”

Since that time, there has been an average of 18 anti-Semitic cases a month.

“A person who would normally not offend, now offends,” Osgood said, describing the effect of the news. “He’s moved by the emotions.”

It’s a bit refreshing to hear this from the police. The role of the media in stimulating anti-Semitism, especially when it comes to Israel, is no secret. Sometimes this takes the form of outright falsifying events in Arab-Israeli wars–Pallywood on the part of videographers and fauxtography on the part of photojournalists–which are usually the deadlier brand of propaganda. Witness, most famously, the example of the al-Dura affair.

But it’s worth pointing out here that there are very different types of war coverage. As I wrote earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal’s coverage was textured, original, investigative, and informative. The “paper of record,” the New York Times, offered just the opposite: coverage that essentially followed Hamas’s PR strategy. European media had similar coverage with even more violent results: attempted pogroms broke out in Paris and anti-Semitic protests could be found all over Western Europe.

The anti-Semitism is blamed on Israel’s actions, which the rioters see through the prism of the media. An excellent example of this vicious cycle is Human Rights Watch’s director Ken Roth. Jonathan Foreman wrote about Roth’s obsessively anti-Israel Twitter feed for the current issue of COMMENTARY. But even more noxious is the group’s role in pushing an anti-Israel narrative that supposedly comes with the credibility of a “human-rights” group.

It goes like this: HRW researchers get quoted by the New York Times accusing Israel of indiscriminate violence and targeting noncombatants–information that is crucial, in the Times’s own acknowledgement, in forming “the characterization of the conflict.” Then the Times tries to boost HRW’s flagging credibility–lest more people notice the group can’t be trusted–by crediting HRW as a key source in understanding “the Damage and Destruction in Gaza.” Along the way, HRW will be cited in a Times opinion piece on how American support for Israel is unethical.

When Jews the world over suffer at the hands of angry anti-Semites, Ken Roth will come to their aid, blaming Israel in part for violent anti-Semitism in the West. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted, Roth tweeted the following, with a link to an article about it: “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.” Goldberg commented: “Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse.” He added that “It is a universal and immutable rule that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice.” Roth defended his comments. On Twitter, he responded that, hey, he was just getting his news from the New York Times.

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The Sound of Silence

Normally, when Human Rights Watch is criticized, the group retaliates with harsh and aggressive attacks on its accusers. Ken Roth, the head of HRW, is famous for this. When it was disclosed last summer that HRW went to Saudi Arabia to raise money for its “fights with pro-Israel groups,” Roth told Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel’s “supporters fight back with lies and deception.” When HRW’s founder, Bob Bernstein, criticized the group in a New York Times op-ed, HRW fired back by egregiously misrepresenting Bernstein’s argument and then denouncing it in classic straw-man fashion.

A couple of days ago, a long investigative piece was published in the New Republic, which contained the most damaging revelations yet about the group’s hostility to Israel, the sloppiness of its work, and the opinions of some of the crackpots who work in its offices. I was expecting Roth and his goon squad to go nuclear, as they normally do, with wild accusations of lies and right-wing smears. Strangely, nothing of the sort has happened. HRW’s defense comes in the form of a short, passionless statement of support by a board member who seems to be the go-to person for defenses of HRW’s treatment of Israel, and who incredibly insists that HRW is “actually good for Israel.”

There is no attempt to refute the carefully documented facts contained in Birnbaum’s TNR piece; there is no smear campaign against the author; there are no fervent letters to the editor insisting on HRW’s invincible moral authority. Instead, there is silence. I think I know why: HRW has been beaten. The case against it has become too strong and too airtight, and HRW’s attempts at self-defense, as the group learned from its attempt to trash its own founder, are so implausible and desperate that they only make the situation worse.

With the TNR piece, we enter a new phase with Human Rights Watch, in which the group no longer tries to marshal a spirited defense of its conduct and reputation. This is how we know things are going the wrong way for HRW: when self-defense becomes so embarrassing that it’s better to keep quiet and hope everyone’s attention shifts to other subjects.

The problem is, that’s not going to happen. It’s time to batten down the hatches at Human Rights Watch.

Normally, when Human Rights Watch is criticized, the group retaliates with harsh and aggressive attacks on its accusers. Ken Roth, the head of HRW, is famous for this. When it was disclosed last summer that HRW went to Saudi Arabia to raise money for its “fights with pro-Israel groups,” Roth told Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel’s “supporters fight back with lies and deception.” When HRW’s founder, Bob Bernstein, criticized the group in a New York Times op-ed, HRW fired back by egregiously misrepresenting Bernstein’s argument and then denouncing it in classic straw-man fashion.

A couple of days ago, a long investigative piece was published in the New Republic, which contained the most damaging revelations yet about the group’s hostility to Israel, the sloppiness of its work, and the opinions of some of the crackpots who work in its offices. I was expecting Roth and his goon squad to go nuclear, as they normally do, with wild accusations of lies and right-wing smears. Strangely, nothing of the sort has happened. HRW’s defense comes in the form of a short, passionless statement of support by a board member who seems to be the go-to person for defenses of HRW’s treatment of Israel, and who incredibly insists that HRW is “actually good for Israel.”

There is no attempt to refute the carefully documented facts contained in Birnbaum’s TNR piece; there is no smear campaign against the author; there are no fervent letters to the editor insisting on HRW’s invincible moral authority. Instead, there is silence. I think I know why: HRW has been beaten. The case against it has become too strong and too airtight, and HRW’s attempts at self-defense, as the group learned from its attempt to trash its own founder, are so implausible and desperate that they only make the situation worse.

With the TNR piece, we enter a new phase with Human Rights Watch, in which the group no longer tries to marshal a spirited defense of its conduct and reputation. This is how we know things are going the wrong way for HRW: when self-defense becomes so embarrassing that it’s better to keep quiet and hope everyone’s attention shifts to other subjects.

The problem is, that’s not going to happen. It’s time to batten down the hatches at Human Rights Watch.

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