Human Rights Watch to continue targeting Israel after leadership shakeup, critics charge

Prominent NGO, accused of ideological bias against Israel, wields major influence in steering public discourse on Jewish state.

Updated: May 3, 2022 - 12:19am

A powerful nongovernmental organization with a massive budget and an alleged ideological bias against Israel will continue targeting the Jewish state after it completes a major leadership change now underway, according to experts and lawmakers who spoke to Just the News.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is headquartered in New York, recently announced that Sari Bashi, a lawyer and activist, will become its new program director.

"I'm thrilled, honored, humbled, and grateful to announce that next month, I will begin my appointment as [HRW's] new program director, supervising our research and investigations as we reorient ourselves to strengthen the broader human rights ecosystem and meet today's challenges," Bashi tweeted. "I get to lead a team of 271 researchers, associates, specialists, and managers, all trying, with humility, to build power and support the work of local and national human rights defenders."

The announcement came days after Kenneth Roth, who has served as HRW's executive director for nearly three decades, said last week he will step down from his position at the end of August.

HRW "investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world," according to its website. "We partner with organizations large and small across the globe to protect embattled activists and to help hold abusers to account and bring justice to victims."

However, critics have long accused HRW of maintaining an institutional hostility toward Israel under Roth's leadership, arguing the NGO devotes a disproportionate and unwarranted amount of time to rebuking a small liberal democracy roughly the size of New Jersey. These same voices are now predicting this bias will continue even after Roth resigns, seeing Bashi's appointment to a senior role as a sign of more of the same.

"Since 1993, Ken Roth has used HRW to promote an obsessive anti-Western and anti-Israel agenda," said Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, a research organization that seeks to hold human rights NGOs accountable. "His actions and language reflect a deeply personal hostility to Judaism and Jewish self-determination, while erasing Palestinian terror. Roth has embedded this agenda deeply into HRW's structure and staffing. The recent addition of Bashi in a senior position highlights his attempt to ensure that the bias continues."

Other observers agreed that Bashi's new role indicates HRW will continue displaying an anti-Israel bias.

"Unfortunately, the extremely biased attitude toward Israel which Kenneth Roth represented in Human Rights Watch will, most probably, be cemented with the appointment of Sari Bashi," said Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a think tank. "Throughout her career, Ms. Bashi has constantly demonstrated her lack of objectivity and overwhelming animus towards the state of Israel."

Bashi previously worked for HRW from 2015 to 2018, serving as director of Israel-Palestine and initiating research on whether Israel was guilty of the crime of apartheid against the Palestinians.

Last year, Bashi returned to HRW to contribute to and promote the organization's 213-page report titled "A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution."

The report alleged Israel committed the crime of apartheid and used demographic control to "maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians." 

The report was a "propaganda pamphlet" and had no connection to facts or reality on the ground," according to Israel's Foreign Ministry. "The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false."

Arabs comprise about one-fifth of Israel's population and have full democratic rights living in Israel. Under Palestinian law, selling or attempting to sell land to Israeli Jews is a crime, punishable by hard labor, imprisonment, and on rare occasions execution.

"One should expect a great deal more objectivity and some degree of empathy for how the state of Israel must protect its civilian population from acts of terrorism from a human rights organization than what, unfortunately, Ms. Bashi brings to the table," said Stern.

HRW's report from last year got the attention of not only analysts and activists but also members of Congress.

"Given Sari Bashi's past work with HRW, which includes promoting a report that absurdly accuses Israel of apartheid, there is sadly no reason to believe that this organization will change at all for the better under her leadership," said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.).

Some six months after the report was released, Israel designated six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations for their ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which Israel, the U.S., and the European Union have all designated as a terrorist group itself. The PFLP is responsible for several attacks against Jews and Israelis, and has also killed Americans.

Bashi opposed the designations and called for breaking Israel's antiterrorism laws.

"Section 24(a)(1) of Israel's antiterrorism law imposes up to 3 years in prison for identifying with a 'terrorist group' by publicly expressing support, praise, or sympathy," she tweeted. "I support @alhaq. I praise @DCIPalestine. I sympathize with @Addameer. Please join me in breaking the law."

Bashi is herself an Israeli Jew, a fact she uses "to avoid or deflect criticism of her biased agenda," according to Steinberg, who added Roth cites his father's Jewish identity for a similar reason. "However, their personal backgrounds do not make the false accusations valid or justify the damage to human rights."

Last year, HRW's total income was just under $130 million, and total expenses were about $91 million, of which $5.2 million was spent on the Middle East and North Africa.

Bolstered by a big bank account, HRW's work is widely cited and has a broad impact on perceptions of Israel, according to experts

"HRW's huge budget and the absence of checks and balances gives its leaders tremendous power to steer the human rights discourse, particularly among students," said Steinberg.

Along with another major human rights NGO, Amnesty International, "they are largely responsible for exploiting apartheid in order to portray Israel as the world's worst human rights violator," he added.

Steinberg's warning that such organizations can affect student thinking came a few days after Harvard University's student newspaper declared its support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel, citing both HRW and Amnesty's work on Israel's "crimes against humanity."

Earlier this year, Amnesty released a report similar to HRW's from last year accusing Israel of apartheid. The report received bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill.

"It is truly amazing that organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International can claim to stand up for human rights while also routinely hurling slanderous accusations at Israel and ignoring violent attacks against Israel by its hostile neighbors," said Zeldin.

Human Rights Watch didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

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