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.