Thursday, July 16, 2009

About That

I for the most part want to stay out of the burgeoning debate of Human Rights Watch's fundraising practices in Saudi Arabia. But I did want to make a brief comment. David Bernstein's "throw every argument at HRW but the kitchen sink" maneuver here is tremendously aggravating and really unwarranted. Yet, there is one thing that had a little resonance for me, and it's the facet Jeffrey Goldberg picked up: the danger of raising money in Saudi Arabia specifically by referencing their ongoing battles against the Israel Lobby. In part, this is because that shouldn't be the focus of HRW's mission -- I'm funding them to be an observer for human rights, not to serve as a counterweight to certain pro-Israel groups. I'm not denying that the former may sometimes entail clashing with the latter, only that it is theoretically secondary, and there is something askew when it is part of the marketing pitch. If HRW was able to criticize human rights violations in Israel (and elsewhere) without remotely straining its relations with pro-Israel groups, that would be fine. If HRW was picking fights with pro-Israel groups and letting that take primacy over human rights watching, that would be very bad.

The other facet of this comes from this excerpt by Goldberg:
Another problem here, of course, is that Sarah Leah Whitson, if the allegation against her is to be believed, trafficked in a toxic stereotype about Jews in a country that bans most Jews from even crossing its borders, and whose religious leadership often propogates the crudest expressions of anti-Semitism. The term pro-Israel lobby, of course, means something very different on the Arabian peninsula than it does here. Here, even to critics of AIPAC, it means a well-funded, well-oiled political machine designed to protect Israel's interests in Congress. In much of the Arab world, "pro-Israel pressure group" suggests a global conspiracy by Jews to dominate the world politically, culturally and economically.

This was the focus of Goldberg's exchange with HRW head Kenneth Roth -- not the propriety of raising money for HRW in Saudi Arabia (I agree with Roth and disagree with Bernstein in that I have no problem with that), but whether the organization's pitch included "we need your help to fight the Israel Lobby." Roth is extremely elusive in answering, but eventually seems to concede it was.

I don't necessarily think Roth was intentionally trying to be evasive, in part because Bernstein's argument was so wide-ranging that I'm sure Roth was primed to hear a broad-spectrum attack and respond accordingly (as opposed to the extremely narrow issue Goldberg was raising). Likewise, I doubt Whitson is intentionally trafficking in the stereotype Goldberg identifies. But the fact that for both, the potential for this sort of rhetoric to severely threaten Jewish (not Israeli, not Zionist, Jewish) security doesn't seem to be particularly salient information, is important on its own. And I find it meaningful that many of HRW's defenders in this saga don't address this element of the dispute at all. The persistent effort to exile anti-Semitism from the conversation leads to this -- it leads to well-meaning actors having no idea how their behavior will react against entrenched anti-Semitic ideologies and institutions, and it leads to a massive blind spot when other people look at the issue and start with a default position that anti-Semitism is not a relevant topic of conversation unless proven (beyond a shadow of doubt) otherwise. This is problematic.

No comments: