Human Rights Watch's double-speak, and its discontents

One has to be careful around tar: while tarring the other, one may besmear one's own self.

This, to judge by the New York Times article on the 213-page Human Rights Watch report accusing Israel of apartheid, is exactly what HRW tried to do — smear Israel with racism while avoiding the equally toxic accusations of anti-Semitism.

As follows from the Times article, this proved a tough, and largely unsuccessful act.

To an average person, the word "apartheid" is associated with the universally condemned and long abandoned South African treatment of blacks.  It is a potent word (which is why HRW badly wanted to use it on Israel), but is also highly problematic, catching HRW in the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, the word has huge explosive power because, as the Times elegantly put it, "apartheid, with its connotations of forced segregation, police shootings and racist ideology, has a special sting" — yet it is simply inapplicable to Israeli policy toward Palestinians, which is driven by security considerations resulting from Palestinian animus, intransigence, and terrorism.

So to HRW, the word "apartheid" is irresistible — but its use is unjustified.  What to do?

This is where the ages-long technique of speaking out of both corners of the mouth came to the rescue.  To the more informed and intelligent, and therefore more squeamish, it was told that "HRW in its report takes pains to separate its list of grievances from the horrors of South Africa" and that "Human Rights Watch does not draw a direct comparison with the notorious South African regime that segregated and subjugated people according to their skin color."

The uninformed, however, are naturally left free to "draw a direct comparison with the notorious South African regime," the comparison that "has a special sting."  At least insofar as the uninformed are concerned, HRW report's task of tarring Israel apparently succeeded.

Except that it didn't.  HRW's doublespeak had not gone unnoticed, and Israelis reacted strongly: "The mendacious apartheid slur is indicative of an organization that has been plagued for years by systemic anti-Israel bias," said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Mr. Regev added: "To allege that Israeli policies are motivated by racism is both baseless and outrageous, and belittles the very real security threats posed by Palestinian terrorists to Israeli civilians — whose fundamental human rights to live in freedom and security are callously ignored by HRW."  Israel's ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, said the report bordered on anti-Semitism.  "When the authors of the report cynically and falsely use the term apartheid, they nullify the legal and social status of millions of Israeli citizens, including Arab citizens, who are an integral part of the state of Israel," he said.

So, the question becomes, is Israel guilty of apartheid, or is Human Rights Watch, of anti-Semitism?  Since it is certainly not the former, I wonder whether the HRW, in its excitement of getting at Israel, reached too far into its barrel of tar and accidentally besmeared its own self — with anti-Semitism.

Image: HRW.

To comment, you can find the MeWe post for this article here.

If you experience technical problems, please write to