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HRW Founder: Human Rights Must Focus on Arab Regimes’ Hate Speech

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein said that today's human rights advocates ignore the repression of basic freedoms across the Middle East and mistakenly call "free speech" and "advocacy' what is really state-sponsored hate speech.
Robert Bernstein, Founding Chair Emeritus of Human Rights Watch, tells 2013 HUC graduates that human rights activists need to focus on the lack of speech freedom in the Arab World.

Robert Bernstein, Founding Chair Emeritus of Human Rights Watch, tells 2013 HUC graduates that human rights activists need to focus on the lack of speech freedom in the Arab World.

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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9 Responses to “HRW Founder: Human Rights Must Focus on Arab Regimes’ Hate Speech”

  1. Gil Gilman says:

    This article was well worth the time spent reading it. However, I must disagree with Mr. Bernstein on one item. The parading of Iran's largest missile down main street was not a provocation to genocide, but merely an incitement to war, or more to the point, a desperate attempt to avoid war, as most Jews still live outside of Israel. If you play that genocide card too often, people will begin to tune you out. In truth, the Iranians, as well as the Syrians, are trembling from head to toe over the prospect of actually having to fire off one of those…and suffer the consequences. They hate that fact, and the more they carry on, the more they rattle sabres, the more evidence they display of hating that reality with a gnashing of teeth and the foam of spittle, but what can they do about it? True, they do not value their own lives; that can be seen by how they enslave and maltreat their own people, but as soon as they release one of their missiles, they have ceased to be a power player in the middle east. That, they don't want. It is far more likely that they live in dread of Israel wiping them out, than the other way around. An incitement to terrorism? Terrorists are already a known quality, and need no provocation.

  2. Gil Gilman says:

    This article was well worth the time spent reading it. However, I must disagree with Mr. Bernstein on one item. The parading of Iran's largest missile down main street was not a provocation to genocide, but merely an incitement to war, or more to the point, a desperate attempt to avoid war, as most Jews still live outside of Israel. If you play that genocide card too often, people will begin to tune you out. In truth, the Iranians, as well as the Syrians, are trembling from head to toe over the prospect of actually having to fire off one of those…and suffer the consequences. They hate that fact, and the more they carry on, the more they rattle sabres, the more evidence they display of hating that reality with a gnashing of teeth and the foam of spittle, but what can they do about it? True, they do not value their own lives; that can be seen by how they enslave and maltreat their own people, but as soon as they release one of their missiles, they have ceased to be a power player in the middle east. That, they don't want. It is far more likely that they live in dread of Israel wiping them out, than the other way around. An incitement to terrorism? Terrorists are already a known quality, and need no provocation.

  3. Gil Gilman says:

    This article was well worth the time spent reading it. However, I must disagree with Mr. Bernstein on one item. The parading of Iran's largest missile down main street was not a provocation to genocide, but merely an incitement to war, or more to the point, a desperate attempt to avoid war, as most Jews still live outside of Israel. If you play that genocide card too often, people will begin to tune you out. In truth, the Iranians, as well as the Syrians, are trembling from head to toe over the prospect of actually having to fire off one of those…and suffer the consequences. They hate that fact, and the more they carry on, the more they rattle sabres, the more evidence they display of hating that reality with a gnashing of teeth and the foam of spittle, but what can they do about it? True, they do not value their own lives; that can be seen by how they enslave and maltreat their own people, but as soon as they release one of their missiles, they have ceased to be a power player in the middle east. That, they don't want. It is far more likely that they live in dread of Israel wiping them out, than the other way around. An incitement to terrorism? Terrorists are already a known quality, and need no provocation.

  4. Gil Gilman says:

    This article was well worth the time spent reading it. However, I must disagree with Mr. Bernstein on one item. The parading of Iran's largest missile down main street was not a provocation to genocide, but merely an incitement to war, or more to the point, a desperate attempt to avoid war, as most Jews still live outside of Israel. If you play that genocide card too often, people will begin to tune you out. In truth, the Iranians, as well as the Syrians, are trembling from head to toe over the prospect of actually having to fire off one of those…and suffer the consequences. They hate that fact, and the more they carry on, the more they rattle sabres, the more evidence they display of hating that reality with a gnashing of teeth and the foam of spittle, but what can they do about it? True, they do not value their own lives; that can be seen by how they enslave and maltreat their own people, but as soon as they release one of their missiles, they have ceased to be a power player in the middle east. That, they don't want. It is far more likely that they live in dread of Israel wiping them out, than the other way around. An incitement to terrorism? Terrorists are already a known quality, and need no provocation.

  5. Gil Gilman says:

    This article was well worth the time spent reading it. However, I must disagree with Mr. Bernstein on one item. The parading of Iran's largest missile down main street was not a provocation to genocide, but merely an incitement to war, or more to the point, a desperate attempt to avoid war, as most Jews still live outside of Israel. If you play that genocide card too often, people will begin to tune you out. In truth, the Iranians, as well as the Syrians, are trembling from head to toe over the prospect of actually having to fire off one of those…and suffer the consequences. They hate that fact, and the more they carry on, the more they rattle sabres, the more evidence they display of hating that reality with a gnashing of teeth and the foam of spittle, but what can they do about it? True, they do not value their own lives; that can be seen by how they enslave and maltreat their own people, but as soon as they release one of their missiles, they have ceased to be a power player in the middle east. That, they don't want. It is far more likely that they live in dread of Israel wiping them out, than the other way around. An incitement to terrorism? Terrorists are already a known quality, and need no provocation.

  6. Nice try. It's not Israel that is unwilling to have a normal and peaceful relationship with Iran or any of its neighbors. It is they who are unwilling to countenance that tiny country's very existence.
    They say it loud and clear, everyday, and have said so for decades and decades. You have no good excuse not to know this.
    "If you play that genocide card too often, people will begin to tune you out. "
    Mr. Bernstein wasn't playing a "card," he was stating a fact. Facts are apparently what you've tuned out.

  7. Graham Wines says:

    Sorry Gil but you are wrong on this. When a country or an individual goes out of their way to encourage others to participate in mass killing and declares their motivation to wipe a country off the map by all means available, that is 'incitement to genocide'. You may be right about their fears but they do encourage people to hate Israel and perform voilent acts against Israel, Jews and Jewish businesses. We shouldn't excuse anyone just because they are frightened or have been carefully taught to hate. We should hold them responsible for their actions and their words.

  8. Boni Hugo says:

    Gil you said :" a desperate attempt to avoid war, as most Jews still live outside of Israel"
    What do you mean?

  9. Gil Gilman says:

    First, I'll respond to Jeff Feldstein, but Boni Hugo who merely requested clarification will be included here as well. Jeff, nowhere in my comment was there a statement resembling your assumption that I meant anything remotely close to Israel having any blame whatsoever in any relation with any arab nation ever. The facts you stated are already known by me, so hold onto your knee so it will stop jerking. If you had ever read any of my other posts, you would never come to the conclusion about the straightforward meaning of my remarks.

    Now to include Boni Hugo, but keep listening. Is there a bonafide desire for genocide against Jews by some the world over? Yes. Do all Jews live in Israel? No. The parading of rockets, and the congruent sabre rattling of threats against Israel are an exhibition of fear on the part of the Iranians, whatever their public pronouncements may be. They are expected to do, so they do. They know Israel has the superior intelligence, tactics, and is not afraid to strike if necessary. If Iran were going to fire missiles as they threatened back in January, they would have done so, and having fired them, there would be justified retaliation that would turn them into another Iraq.

    Boni Hugo, I was unclear in the sentence you point out, and my mea culpa is typing on my iPad one letter at a time, and running out of steam. This should explain it. Iran does not want war, and will wait until the dust settles from the Syrian debacle before any real threat would materialize. They prefer working behind the scenes through their subordinates. There are approximately 6 million Jews in Israel, and about 8 million in the diaspora, including almost 6 million in the United States. If the vast majority were to make Aliyah, and most of the 14,000,000 were in the land, then an act against Israel could properly be considered as genocide. What can Iran do against the Jews of the United States? Nothing. The U. S. would squash them like a bug if it were attacked. Put North Korea (who is much more likely to be a loose cannon) and Iran together, and they would both be squashed like a bug. This is why Iran must continue to swagger like some of the bullies I've faced in my life. My response has always been, "I'm right here, bring it on."

    Jeff Feldstein, I guess I just have a great deal of confidence in the IDF. Are all the threatening, sloganeering, posturing, divestment, terrorist acts, firing of missiles from palestinian occupied territory against Israel abhorrent? They are to me. There is nothing new in it all. The issue of genocide has been around longer than you or me. And the threats against the nation have been a sixty-five year struggle. So the red flag word of genocide clouds the true meaning behind Iran's parading and rhetoric. Or do you not believe that no weapon formed against Israel will prosper?

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