Both ostensibly and legally, the Omar Shakir case coming before Israel’s High Court of Justice on Sept. 24 is not about Human Rights Watch (HRW) per se. The formal question is whether Shakir, the “Israel and Palestine Director” at HRW, violated both the terms of his visa and the law that mandates the exclusion from Israel of leaders of the BDS movement.
The government’s case, reinforced by amicus briefs filed by Israeli watchdog groups (including NGO Monitor), includes overwhelming evidence of Shakir’s BDS activity. HRW’s legal team argues that the case is political, asserting that Israel is targeting HRW for alleged human-rights work that is critical of Israel. The organization claims that Shakir’s BDS work ended when he arrived in Israel in 2016.
The Jerusalem District Court was unimpressed by the HRW spin, and its ruling accepted the government’s position. Shakir was nevertheless allowed to stay in the country pending the High Court appeal.
Although its language is narrowly legal and technical, this case reflects major issues not only for Israel but in the wider realms of lawfare, soft power and public diplomacy. The arguments on human rights and nebulous aspects of international law are proxies for a multi-front war that has been escalating for 20 years around soft power delegitimacy. This 21st-century political, legal and economic war seeks to demonize and thereby destroy Israel, much as the wars fought by armies and missiles attempted to defeat the Jewish state on the battlefield.
From its opening shots almost 20 years ago, HRW has been a leader in the attacks against Israel, and the Shakir case is an important milestone in this history. HRW brings an annual budget of $92 million ($641 million over the past decade) to the battlefront and provides a vast array of skilled social and mainstream media warriors. The image of a small group of volunteers sacrificing their spare time to promote universal human rights values is a facade. These are highly paid mercenaries waging propaganda wars with all the weapons money can buy.
HRW is a leader in anti-Semitic campaigns to demonize and single out Israel, with a particular emphasis on BDS. The organization’s leadership is obsessed with Israel, and their resources badly outmatch the budget-starved Israeli Foreign Ministry. Far from the claim that Shakir was not engaging in BDS activity during his almost three years in Israel, the evidence clearly shows that this agenda constitutes the vast majority of his and HRW’s activities on Israel—from the failed attempt to pressure Airbnb to join in the demonization to the international soccer federation campaign (another failure). Detailed analysis indicates that notwithstanding a few token reports criticizing Hamas that were designed to deflect criticism, HRW’s target is unequivocally Israel.
All these factors, and the wider demonization, are at the core of the Shakir case. Politically, this case is about HRW and BDS warfare, and whether, after numerous defeats, the Israeli government has a viable counter-strategy. (Had the various officials and ministries involved had a coherent strategy in place in 2016, Shakir and HRW would never have received a work visa in the first place, and the court sessions, media focus and accompanying human-rights theater would have been avoided.)
The importance of this case and the worldwide stage it provides for HRW’s anti-Israel campaign was highlighted in July, when Shakir’s hearing was initially scheduled. The top five officials of HRW, led by executive director Kenneth Roth, arrived in Israel for a full-scale diplomatic and media blitz (though at the last minute, the court postponed the hearing, short-circuiting their plans.) For them, the case is a win-win: If the judges overrule the lower court, this will be presented as a great victory for HRW over the hated and anti-democratic Israeli government. And if Shakir loses and is deported, HRW will declare a great victory in showing the world how “Israel oppresses brave human-rights defenders.”
Shakir and HRW’s leaders have already waged a very successful campaign in the international media. They project an invented image of a politically neutral organization promoting the moral principles of human rights, and overcoming intense opposition by the “far right” Israeli government. Shakir has published opinion pieces in the mainstream media, including the Washington Post (“Israel wants to deport me for my human rights work,” April 18, 2019), in addition to numerous interviews (see for example, The New York Times, “Israel Invokes Anti-Boycott Law to Order Human Rights Worker Deported”, April 16, 2019). Ken Roth and other HRW officials have added to the propaganda campaign.
The same façade of “human rights defenders” (a politicized term used very loosely) was reinforced through highly publicized meetings with European diplomats, such as with the German ambassador to Israel, who proclaimed on Twitter: “Today I met with @KenRoth from Human Rights Watch, an organisation I have known for many years from previous work on Int‘l Humanitarian Law. For Germany, @hrw remains an important partner in raising awareness & promoting Int‘l Law and #HumanRights around the globe.” She provided no rationale as to why Roth and HRW would remain “an important partner,” and ignored their history of anti-Israel campaigning and anti-Semitism.
In the United States, HRW generated a letter from 17 Democratic members of Congress to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to “reconsider” the rejection of Shakir’s request for a visa renewal and repeating the standard PR on the importance of “the reports of Human Rights Watch for balanced accounts of human-rights violations wherever they may occur.” The letter warned that deporting Shakir would “reinforce the impression that Israel is increasingly hostile to human rights defenders.”
In responding, Netanyahu accused HRW of exploiting “the banner of justice and human rights … to delegitimize the State of Israel and negate its very right to exist.” He accused HRW and Shakir of leading the BDS movement, with the goal of seeking to “isolate and ultimately destroy the State of Israel.” This is also the essence of the Israeli government’s claim in denying HRW’s “Israel/Palestinian director” his request to renew the work visa formally granted for promoting human rights.
Before Israeli audiences, Roth, Shakir and their surrogates had a mixed impact during their July tour. Articles and interviews in Ha’aretz gave them celebrity status and repeated their claims. In sharp contrast, their radio interview with Israel’s public broadcaster (Kan, Reshet Bet) highlighted Shakir’s record of promoting hate and BDS, and Roth’s deep anti-Israel obsession. In the face of repeated questions, Roth refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination, regardless of borders. In the process, he revealed the core of HRW’s campaign against Israel and its facade of human rights. Their efforts to use the fig-leaf reports on Hamas as a defense were ignored.
For anyone who has followed HRW and its critics over the years, none of this is new or surprising. HRW is well established as among the leaders of the campaign falsely accusing Israel of repeated violations of human rights and international law. These accusations are amplified through the media and international institutions, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council, as well as in the halls of European parliaments, foreign ministries and elsewhere. In these venues, HRW’s claims to focus on research and documentation of rights violations are repeated without question, long after their failed methodologies, repetitive false claims and ideological agendas have been exposed.
The most potent case against HRW was made by its late founder, Robert Bernstein, who denounced Roth and the organization in an opinion column in The New York Times. He accused them of using their resources and influence to lead the campaign to “turn Israel into a pariah state.” In speeches at the University of Nebraska (2010) and Hebrew Union College in New York (2013), he detailed this criticism, accusing Roth and others of abusing their position.
There are also major questions regarding HRW’s donors and enablers. Following Bernstein’s denunciation, several original funders also pulled out. George Soros, a major critic of Israel, stepped in to save the NGO, along with other unknown benefactors. HRW stopped publishing the names of donors, raising numerous questions. At the time, HRW officials made overtures to Saudi Arabia and Libya, which was then ruled by Moammar Qaddafi. These actions and the lack of transparency regarding donors, which began at the same time, led to speculation about secret funding from Middle East dictatorships, which would reinforce an already strongly anti-Israel agenda.
Taken together, the issues of anti-Semitism, demonization, methodological failures and funding secrecy should be sufficient grounds for branding HRW and its officials, including Roth and Shakir, as propagandists and worse, and to strip away the veneer of “human-rights defenders.” There is no need for Israel’s anti-BDS laws; indeed, this legislation and its application in the Shakir visa case are distractions from the core issues. The ability of HRW to use court cases and appeals to successfully promote its agenda is clear evidence that the government has failed.
No matter what the High Court’s ruling on the Shakir case may be, HRW’s war against Israel will continue. If the court upholds the government’s position and Shakir is required to depart, he and HRW will accelerate their condemnations of Israel and other forms of demonization around the world.
Therefore, in the confrontation between HRW, as an NGO superpower working under a front of human rights, and Israel, which seeks to counter and defeat multiple campaigns of demonization and delegitimization, this case should be recognized as a policy failure.
Instead, a broader and more strategic approach is necessary, though it may be beyond the government’s capability, particularly as a lead actor. HRW, despite its enormous war chest and capabilities in the realm of public relations and in waging soft-power warfare, is an NGO. Leadership in countering their attacks might be more effective if it came from other NGOs and not directly from the Israeli government, or from political officials who are poorly equipped to lead such a confrontation.
Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research.
This article first appeared on the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies website.