Human Rights Watch Founder Questions Mission

The following speech by Robert L. Bernstein, the founding Chair of Human Rights Watch and former President and Chair of Random House, is published here for the first time. His remarks raise critical questions about the work of major human rights groups — especially the one he founded — in judging Israel and other democracies, and their impact on war, peace and universal human rights.


“Human Rights in the Middle East”
Robert L. Bernstein

The Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights
University of Nebraska at Omaha
November 10, 2010

You may wonder why a man just shy of his 88th birthday would get up at 5 in the morning to fly to Omaha to give a speech. Frankly, since accepting this kind offer, I’ve wondered myself. Here’s why. Having devoted much of my life to trying to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come alive in many places in the world, I have become alarmed at how some human rights organizations, including the one I founded, are reporting on human rights in the Middle East.

In reading about the discussions and actions of students on American campuses, I learned, of course, that the Israel-Palestine issues were very polarized, sometimes hostile, and that a lot of the hostility was by students angered over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the endless process of trying to establish a second state.

I know we all believe in free speech. We believe in equality for women. We believe in tolerance of each other’s religious beliefs and in an open campus. When I go back to New York, tomorrow night, I will be attending the 150th anniversary of Bard College, a college very involved in the Middle East, as it has a combined degree program with Al-Quds, the Palestinian university in Ramallah. Here is what Leon Botstein, Bard’s President, says about education: “Education is a safeguard against the disappearance of liberty, but only if it invites rigorous inquiry, scrutiny, and the open discussion of issues.”

Believing in all these values and the others of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what is taking place on American campuses puzzles me. It seems to me that the State of Israel has all the values we just outlined. It is surrounded by 22 Arab states occupying 99-1/2% of the land in the Middle East and these states do not share these values. Israel, which occupies less than ½ of 1%, does share these values. There is a battle about two things: First, the size of the 23rd state, the new Palestinian state, which at present has many of the same values as the other 22 states. Secondly, the claims of many Arab states, Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, about the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. I don’t think human rights organizations alone can solve this mess but I do wonder about the discussions on many campuses, particularly about Israeli abuses, regardless of what you believe about them, and whether they are constructive. I don’t see how discussions of Israeli abuses can take such precedence over the kind of state that will be next to Israel. That is, not only internally, although human rights advocates should care about that more than they do, but in its foreign policy toward its neighbor Israel.

With this and similar thoughts on my mind, I decided that accepting the honor of speaking here tonight would make me sort things out about the difficult situation that exists and then take this one opportunity to try and articulate my thoughts. So, here I am to do that. 

While I was in Israel during the first week of October, I met with government officials, NGOs, educators, and, of course, the press. One journalist I met with was Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, who basically believes the Arab governing structure, including Palestinians, is doing great harm to the Palestinians and that they would be much better off engaging with the Israelis. He constantly points out that most Israeli Arab citizens do not want to be part of a different state. He is in Ramallah in the West Bank almost every day and he also speaks on American campuses frequently – where he actually feels the most hostility. Should he come to Nebraska, I’m sure that won’t be the case.

 In thinking about campuses and why they are often so polarized, it occurred to me that one of the principal reasons is the encouragement they are getting from human rights organizations, including the one I founded – Human Rights Watch. I have found myself in strong disagreement with the policies and actions in the Middle East of Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations that have similar policies – like Amnesty International and The Carter Center. These disagreements have actually polarized my own relationships with the organization as it chooses not to engage on the issues but instead to declare that I wish special treatment for Israel.   [continued…]

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