Mondoweiss / April 28, 2021
The Human Rights Watch report accusing Israel of apartheid has gotten far more attention than similar reports in recent years. And that includes an incensed response from the right-wing Israel lobby.
The bombshell Human Rights Watch report that came out yesterday accusing Israel of committing crimes of apartheid and persecution toward Palestinians in many areas of its governance follows in a long tradition of such charges, including from a leading Israeli human rights groups in January, B’Tselem.
Yet the HRW report is clearly different. It is getting a ton of attention, something denied earlier reports- because of the rights organization’s international profile, its New York Jewish roots, or the fact that the report is over 200 highly-documented pages. The report has drawn blood; it is sparking incensed reprisals from many of Israel’s friends in the United States.
This is a roundup of reactions, focused on the Israel lobby and officialdom.
The Biden administration
The report made the PBS News Hour last night and the White House press briefing yesterday. Press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the White House thinks the report is accurate. Inaccurate, she said:
“[T]he State’s Department has its own rigorous process for making atrocity determinations and reports on human rights abus- — issues globally on an annual basis through the Human Rights Report that they issue, they do briefings on, and they put out publicly. The Department has never used such terminology.
As to the question of whether Israel’s actions constitute apartheid, that is not the view of this administration.”
The right-wing Israel lobby
The American Jewish Committee leaped on the report as a “hatchet job” today, in an angry post that attacks Human Rights Watch repeatedly for things unrelated to apartheid. “Hostility and hypocrisy are HRW’s hallmarks when it comes to Israel.” Or, the report should have been about Iran wanting to “murder Jews.” AJC’s claims also include character assassination of HRW executive Ken Roth and report author Omar Shakir– and this comment about discriminatory immigration policy.
“It points to Israel’s Law of Return—the assurance offered to Jews around the world that they will always find a haven and a home in Israel—as an example of Israel’s discrimination, ignoring the fact that similar laws exist in numerous democracies around the world and implicitly challenging Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.”
But the point of the HRW report is the stark contrast between the Law of Return with other laws that bar a Palestinian born in Israel from returning to their home.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is also angry. It says the report is antisemitic (in that it fulfils the antisemitism definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance). Its denunciation of HRW contains a lot of invective:
“We strongly reject the disgraceful report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that attempts to demonize, delegitimize, and apply double standards to the State of Israel.
Authored by Omar Shakir, a longtime operative of the blatantly antisemitic and anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, this libelous document resorts to baseless apartheid accusations against Israel, among other lies and distortions. The apartheid system practiced by South Africa was characterized by tyranny and dehumanization; this has no equivalence to a vibrant democracy where all citizens have rights and representation in the national legislature.”
“Tyranny and dehumanization” are words that Palestinians often use to describe the governance of the Jewish state.
Longtime Israel lobbyist Martin Indyk attacked HRW on Twitter for not trying “to reach progressive Jews” with the report. It should have focused on the occupation only, he says, not the second class treatment of Palestinians in Israel.
Indyk also asserted that Hirsh Goodman “demolished” the HRW’s “tendentious” report. Writing in the Forward, Goodman, who grew up in South Africa then moved to Israel (under discriminatory laws) said the report was a “diatribe” on every page. He described Israel as an idealistic democracy– struggling to “rid itself of the yoke of Netanyahu and his expansionist partners, stem the drift toward the unilateral annexation of the territories and continue to seek a solution to the conundrum posed by the Palestinian issue, albeit without a strong and unified partner present on the other side.”
I’d contend that fatigue with extremist Israeli politics was actually a factor in Human Rights Watch’s issuing the report now. Occupation has simply not been an issue in recent elections; and nearly 80 members of the latest Israeli parliament are right-wing and dedicated to holding on to occupied lands.
Goodman also touted the role of Palestinian politician Mansour Abbas, whom some regard as a potential kingmaker, holding four seats in the Knesset. “His voice is key in determining who will form the next governing coalition in Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right cohorts, or the anti-Netanyahu camp. Both groups are courting Abbas, hardly a sign of the kind of subjugation associated with apartheid,” Goodman writes.
Scott Roth responds that describing Mansour Abbas as a kingmaker ignores the sorry history of all Jewish Israeli parties refusing to work with Palestinian parties. “Right. Just like the Joint List was after the second and third elections. The fact I have to say this shows how corrupt the discourse is.”
The leading Israel lobby group AIPAC has not responded to the HRW report directly, but it’s retweeted Republican congresspeople who say the problem is Iran or Palestinian rejectionism. Here is Lisa McClain, Michigan Republican, saying.
“@hrw has shown again how they have an anti-Israel agenda. Maybe they should focus their efforts on the documented ongoing genocide in #China and the rampant human rights abuses in #Iran. #doublestandards”
And Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina:
“I urge my colleagues in Congress to vocally condemn the latest attempt by @hrw to demonize the Jewish State. Israel is most certainly not an apartheid & this report only further entrenches ongoing Palestinian rejection of peace talks w/Israel which has persisted for seven years.”
Liberal Zionists only focus on occupation
Liberal Zionists have not ignored the report, as they largely did the B’Tselem report. But they say it’s about the occupation. Dylan Williams of J Street:
“You can disagree with its conclusion but don’t defame @hrw in the name of our community, especially when many Israeli human rights experts have said the same thing Instead reconsider your decades of denying & distracting from the harm occupation does to Israel & the Palestinians”
Americans for Peace Now issued a statement on Tuesday saying it was appalled by the ad hominem attacks on Shakir and Roth. It said the “important” report, with its meticulous deployment of facts, is a “wakeup call” about occupation.
“[T]he carefully documented facts in the HRW report on the occupation are largely indisputable. We also know too well what the occupation does to Palestinians and Israelis, and how desperately it needs to end.
Let’s talk about the facts on the ground, not what you think about the use of the term Apartheid. Let’s talk about occupation, about military detention, including of youth, and about the theft of Palestinian lands. This, not manufactured outrage about “double standards” and “inaccurate use of terminology” is what our community leaders should be addressing.”
Again, the occupation is not the focus of the actual report. Though J Street today also sought to shift the focus to the occupation. It issued a statement that laments the vitriol that many Jewish groups are aiming at the report and said, let’s talk about the occupation as a threat to Zionism.
“We are deeply dismayed by the vitriolic response of some Jewish communal and pro-Israel organizations to the new report by Human Rights Watch titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” While J Street does not use the term “apartheid” to describe the current situation in the occupied territories, we believe this new report raises critical concerns that should deeply trouble both supporters of Israel and those who care about Palestinian rights.
The fact that the occupation inherently threatens Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people and involves the systematic deprivation of Palestinian rights simply cannot be ignored.”
Here is some soul-searching from Laurence Tribe at Harvard Law School:
“As a proud Jewish American with cousins who were born and live in Israel, I sadly associate myself with this @HRW conclusion. If you’re tempted to call Human Rights Watch antiSemitic, first read its devastating report — and then reconsider.”
This twitter thread about the angry responses to the report captures what angers me so much about the Israel lobby. American Jews lead very good lives in the U.S., by and large, and meantime many leading Jewish organizations act to guarantee misery for Palestinians out of some delusion about what Israel ought to be.
“the level of false victimhood internalized by American Zionists on here, which they then weaponize against Palestinians subjugated to Israeli apartheid, is so unspeakably abhorrent I don’t even have the words for it. it makes me so mad to see highly privileged people do this. Because they have *feelings* about a fucking COUNTRY, they’ll justify any amount of violence and brutality against millions of people. .. [I]t’s wrong and vile and horrible…. You read HRW say Israel is an apartheid and that was “painful” for you!? PAINFUL!? What the fuck do you think living inside Gaza is like, then, if a word in a report is PAINFUL for you? I physically recoil at this. Your feelings are more important than people’s lives.”
And Rep. Betty McCollum, who used the word “apartheid” herself, back in 2018 in Minnesota, welcomed the report yesterday.
“It is clear: Without restrictions, U.S. military aid to Israel is a green light to Israeli persecution of Palestinians, and what HRW calls “the crime of apartheid.”
H/t Adam Horowitz, Dave Reed.
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006