"Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit."
That was the explanation reportedly offered by one board member of Human Rights Watch (HRW) back in 2010, when there was considerable interest in the question why the organization would churn out so many condemnations of Israel that even its founder Robert Bernstein decided to express his frustration in the New York Times, accusing it of having "lost critical perspective," helping "turn Israel into a pariah state."
Almost a decade later, it seems that Israel is so low-hanging that HRW, which describes itself as "known for its accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting," no longer even tries to pretend that its frequent criticism of the Jewish state is based on impartial assessments.
The recent decision of Israeli authorities not to renew the work permit of HRW Israel/Palestine director Omar Shakir has been met with a predictable outcry and fierce protest from Israeli human rights organizations. Even the European Union has declared that it "expects the Israeli authorities to reverse their decision."
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HRW is now suing Israel’s interior ministry, claiming that Israel is “trying to muzzle [HRW’s] criticism of its human rights record.” This week, the Jerusalem District Court issued an injunction temporarily halting the deportation order.
But no matter what the courts decide, the claim that Israel is attempting to "muzzle" HRW’s human rights criticism is disingenuous. Omar Shakir has not just criticized Israel’s human rights record, but denounced Israel’s existence as a Jewish state within any borders.
And that’s not just an issue of ‘historical’ activism back in his student days – it’s hostility that he’s reiterated publicly since his appointment at HRW in late 2016.
HRW and its allies sadly discredit their cause by insisting that Israel should go along with the charade that someone who has been campaigning all of his adult life against the world’s only Jewish state can be an "accurate" and "impartial" critic of its conduct.
The legal document submitted by HRW against Israel’s interior ministry claims it "should sicken anyone familiar with the history of government surveillance of civilians" that Israeli authorities cited Shakir’s student activism as a reason for revoking his work permit.
But Shakir’s student activism – which can easily be traced by anyone with Internet access – is unfortunately very relevant: HRW clearly considered it as a qualification, and Shakir’s conduct shows that his work with HRW is simply an extension of his longstanding efforts to demonize Israel as a racist evil that has to be eradicated.
Shakir’s activism can be documented going back to his freshman year at Stanford in 2004. Then as today, activists like Shakir were eager to distract from the threats facing Israel.
While HRW insists currently that the role of Hamas in the recent Gaza riots is irrelevant, back in 2004, activists were working hard to distract from the murderous Al-Aqsa Intifada, the exploitation of Palestinian teenagers for terrorist attacks and shocking but reliable polls showing that 71% of Palestinians thought that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could be trusted "to do the right thing regarding world affairs."
In 2007, shortly before the Islamist terror group Hamas seized power in Gaza, Shakir told The Stanford Daily in his capacity as "president of Students Confronting Apartheid by Israel" that the problem was not Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967, but rather Israel’s establishment in 1948, that resulted in "the destruction of the indigenous society and a 59-year subjugation of the indigenous population."
Shakir continued to demonize Israel as an illegitimate "apartheid" state whose elimination would make the world a better place.
By 2010, his activism was noted in an Anti-Defamation League report on campus anti-Semitism, because he regarded it as "an honor" to speak at an event where Jews were compared to Nazis, while terror groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad were hailed as "Freedom Fighters."
Shakir used the opportunity to reiterate his support for boycott campaigns to delegitimize Israel and praised his fellow activists for the disruption of a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine, in February 2010, denouncing Oren as a "war criminal."
Shakir remained an active and vocal proponent of Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) campaigns targeting Israel. As numerous tweets from recent years show, he never changed his long-held views or distanced himself from his activism before he was hired as HRW Israel/Palestine director in fall 2016.
One particularly problematic aspect of Shakir’s activism is his repeated denial of the rampant anti-Semitism that is arguably an all but inevitable part of campaigns that seek to delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state as an evil that must be eradicated.
While Shakir’s student activism already indicates that he may not be particularly sensitive to manifestations of contemporary anti-Semitism, more recent evidence suggests that he has not learnt to recognize even its more blatant forms.
In early April 2015, Shakir shared what he described as a "[p]owerful cartoon on Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria" from the Electronic Intifada,a website dedicated to demonizing Israel, mainstreaming anti-Semitism, and cheering Islamist terror groups like Hamas.
The cartoon depicts a small emaciated figure in rags prone on the ground and holding up a key, i.e. the symbol of Palestinian demands to "return" to Israel. The helpless Palestinian is threatened by a sword-wielding Islamist, who is backed by a shadowy Jew wearing a hat with a Star of David.
Perhaps Shakir would claim he did not notice that the shadowy figure backing the sword-wielding Islamist is marked as a Jew. However, just four weeks earlier, Shakir had posted a tweet linking to a report that Avigdor Lieberman, who was then Israel’s foreign minister, had been denounced as "Jewish ISIS" by then-deputy Knesset speaker Ahmad Tibi.
Shakir also must have known that among anti-Israel activists, it has long been popular to demonize Israel as either resembling the terror group Islamic State, or as supportive of, or even allied with Islamist terrorists in Syria and elsewhere.
This meme is a good illustration of how the Nazi slogan "the Jews are our misfortune" is often echoed among anti-Israel activists as "the Jewish state is our misfortune" – that is to say, whatever is bad in the Middle East (or even elsewhere) must somehow be due to Israeli machinations, and therefore the Jewish state is too evil to be allowed a continued existence.
Another example that shows how deeply Shakir remains committed to the views he formed as an activist is his recent criticism of MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid.
Since anti-Israel activists usually denounce the two-state-solution as a form of "apartheid," it was not surprising when Shakir recently attacked Shelah for arguing that "Israel will not be able to be Jewish, if we annex Judea and Samaria, or democratic if we continue ruling over them without rights...We must separate or endanger the Zionist vision."
Shakir indicated that Shelah’s "Zionist vision" of a Jewish and democratic state – prioritizing a "quest for [a] Jewish majority" - should be regarded as akin to white supremacists’ quest for demographic dominance.
This tweet, posted on March 26, 2018, reflects the profound hostility prevalent among radical anti-Israel activists who seek to hold on to the equation of Zionism and racism that the UN once endorsed and later retracted. Shakir also chose to mark Jerusalem Day on May 13 with yet another tweet suggesting that efforts to ensure a Jewish majority in the city central to Judaism were just like attempts to "ensure white majority."
Anyone who claims that a person with these views can be a dispassionate observer of Israel’s conduct is either deluded or dishonest. Since Shakir is obviously either unwilling or unable to understand the Jewish attachment to the city that has been a focus of Jewish ritual for two millennia, but is at the same time eager to demonize a centrist democrat like Shelah as a white supremacist, it is anything but undemocratic or illiberal to tell HRW in no uncertain terms that sending people with such views to assess Israel’s conduct is beyond the pale.
But it is also important to understand that Shakir was obviously hired by HRW not despite, but because of his views.
This is the all-but-inevitable conclusion given the unbridled hostility against Israel regularly broadcast by Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the HRW Middle East and North Africa Division.
Just recently, Whitson showed her disdain for efforts to achieve a two state solution in response to Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, who wrote on Twitter: "Six past directors of Israel’s spying agency Mossad urge diplomacy to end the occupation, prevent bi-national state through two-state solution. ‘The State of Israel needs peace in order to exist over time.’" Whitson responded flippantly: "Six past directors are too late. Ain’t gonna happen. Let’s hear their plan B based on equality and rights for all."
Whitson had already asserted last year that "[t]here are no prospects for peaceful resolution of the conflict that result in the restoration of the human rights of the Palestinian people." Mocking the fact that "many still insist they can see the unicorn of a ‘two-state solution,’" Whitson went on to observe that "Palestinians seem resigned and defeated."
Astonishingly, she then noted with ostensible regret: "Gone is the bluster of Hamas, apparently exhausted from rattling its Gaza cage, unapologetically lobbing shoddy rockets into Israeli cities despite the resulting tsunami of airborne Israel Defense Forces (IDF) devastation in its territory."
Whitson’s recent conduct on social media supports the conclusion that she has great sympathy for those who harbor an intense hate of Israel.
As I documented in a series of screenshots posted on Twitter, Whitson freely re-tweeted posts from blatantly antSemitic sites that are sympathetic to Hamas, including Iran’s Press TV and Electronic Intifada. It is truly shocking that a senior official of HRW would promote those sites as legitimate news sources.
But the perhaps best illustration of Whitson’s loathing for Israel is a recent tweet where she reacted to a condemnation of Israel’s response to the Gaza riots by Jordan’s foreign minister with the comment: "Your turn @AdelAljubeir and @abzayed and @mfaEgypt -- have any firm words for your ally @Netanyahu and his open fire policies that allow this massacre to unfold?"
The people she tagged – and described as "allied" with Netanyahu – included Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Aljubeir and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed as well as Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The fact that these countries have dismal human rights records clearly didn’t matter for Whitson as she was trying to elicit Arab condemnations of Israel.
So next time you read a HRW report condemning Israel, keep in mind that the people who wrote and approved it may be rather unhappy about growing ties between Israel and Arab countries, and that they may not want Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; but on the other hand, they may well have some sympathy for "the bluster of Hamas," and perhaps also a measure of admiration for how the Islamist terror group is "rattling its Gaza cage" by "unapologetically lobbing shoddy rockets into Israeli cities."
A human rights organization where staff and even people in senior positions signal so openly that their sympathies are with those who want to rid the world of its one Jewish state has only itself to blame when Israel is reluctant to further their noxious agenda.
Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli researcher and writer with a Ph.D. in contemporary history. Twitter: @WarpedMirrorPMB