Robert Bernstein, the founder and long-time director of Human Rights Watch, told his audience of Hebrew Union College graduates and those in attendance last week that human rights advocates have lost sight of what their goals should be with respect to human rights issues in the Middle East.
The undisputed dean of the global human rights movement, Bernstein, 90 years old, says that the movement has lost its way. Instead of focusing on the stranglehold on speech and other basic freedoms by the leaders of 300 million Arabs across the Middle East, the human rights watchers instead watch Israel with a microscope and play a twisted game of ‘gotcha!’ in an effort to catch Israel in what they rush to call war crimes.
Bernstein noted that of the millions of Arabs whose governments deny them freedom of speech, “half of them, 150 million, as women, not only lack freedom of speech, but have barely any rights at all. And the private rights of how to pray and how to love are wrongly dictated by governments all across the Arab World.”
In essence, Bernstein called the “Arab Spring” a squandered opportunity for human rights activists who should have seized the opportunity to help oppressed people throughout the region throw off their shackles, instead of helping them exchange the old shackles for new ones.
Dictators who had oppressed their own people – and deceived them by telling them that Jews and Israel’s very existence were one of the primary causes of their misery – were toppled. It was a time for human rights organizations and governmental organizations to try to push for these rights long denied, with the hopes that they would take some root. One might have hoped, too, that it was a time for human rights organizations to tell the people living in Arab countries that their governments not only misled them about their own rights, but also falsely portrayed Israel as a threat and an enemy to detract attention from their plight. Sadly, they did not do this. And the reason, in my opinion, is because of where many in the human rights community have placed their emphasis in recent years.
And it isn’t only the brutal repression of their people that Bernstein faults when it comes to the leaders of so many Arab countries, it is the promulgation of state-sponsored hate speech.
If they want to have an impact for good in the Middle East, human rights organizations should be focusing on state-incited hate speech. And, unfortunately, there is plenty of it in closed societies across the Arab world. If human rights organizations wanted to be open and honest with the suffering Arab masses, who are certainly suffering, they would point out that blaming Jews is a distraction and not what is holding them and their children back from enjoying the miracles of today’s world. For decades, government sponsored hate speech in closed societies has been fostering a revenge rather than reform mentality.
Bernstein criticized the current vanguard of human rights activists who hear fascist government dictators’ hate speech and incitement and call it “advocacy” and “protected free speech.”
As an example, Bernstein explained that the statements made by Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini, that he ‘can destroy Israel in nine minutes,’ and Ahmadinejad’s wheeling Iran’s largest rocket through Tehran, declaring: ‘This is for Israel,’ constitute incitement to genocide, which is a crime under international human rights laws. “Yet the major human rights organizations have found no way to confront the problem and recognize that the 300-plus million people living in closed Arab countries have been taught for decades that a small Jewish state has no right to exist.”
Bernstein called on the graduates to reach out to leaders of other faiths and “ask them, as a step toward Mid-East and world peace, to stop the campaign of hate, not only in the Arab world, but wherever else it exists.”
The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) awarded Bernstein the 2013 Bernard Heller Prize at its May 3 graduation, which was held at Congregation Emanu-El, in New York City.
The Heller Prize is given to an organization or individual whose work, research or writing reflects significant contributions in arts, letters, the humanities and religion. Previous recipients of the Heller Prize include Dennis B. Ross, Special Middle East Coordinator in the U.S. Department of State, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, chief negotiator of the Dayton Accords, Count Folke Bernadotte, for rescuing thousands from the concentration camps during the Holocaust, and Shimon Peres, President of the State of Israel.
Bernstein was the chairman of Random House Publishers for 25 years. He became focused on the vital importance of speech and press freedoms while visiting the Soviet Union in the early 1970′s. In 1973 Bernstein established the Fund for Expression in order to acquaint the world with dissident writers who were unable to publish their work in their own countries. After beginning several different organizations to ensure various rights were safeguarded, he and those with whom he work eventually merged them into what became Human Rights Watch, which he chaired for 20 years, and of which he is now founding chair emeritus.
The press release issued by HUC-JIR did not mention it, although Bernstein did in his speech last week, that in 2009 he penned an op-ed highly critical of HRW, which appeared in the New York Times. In it, he wrote that HRW had ”lost its critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields.” Bernstein also criticized HRW for attacking Israel the most of any country in the region, although it is the only free state in the neighborhood.
The founder of Human Rights Watch ended his speech to the HUC-JIR graduates by imploring them to work with other faith leaders and lead their communities out of the miasma of hate. “This is not an easy job. But you have no choice, what is the alternative?”
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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