CRITICIZE ISRAEL? YOU'RE AN ANTI-SEMITE!
EVER WONDER what it's like to be a pariah?
Publish something sharply critical of Israeli government policies and you'll find out. If you're lucky, you'll merely discover that you've been uninvited to some dinner parties. If you're less lucky, you'll be the subject of an all-out attack by neoconservative pundits and accused of rabid anti-Semitism.
This, at least, is what happened to Ken Roth. Roth - whose father fled Nazi Germany - is executive director of Human Rights Watch, America's largest and most respected human rights organization. (Disclosure: I have worked in the past as a paid consultant for the group.) In July, after the Israeli offensive in Lebanon began, Human Rights Watch did the same thing it has done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Congo, Uganda and countless other conflict zones around the globe: It sent researchers to monitor the conflict and report on any abuses committed by either side.
It found plenty. On July 18, Human Rights Watch condemned Hezbollah rocket strikes on civilian areas within Israel, calling the strikes "serious violations of international humanitarian law and probable war crimes." So far, so good. You can't lose when you criticize a terrorist organization.
But Roth and Human Rights Watch didn't stop there. As the conflict's death toll spiraled - with most of the casualties Lebanese civilians - Human Rights Watch also criticized Israel for indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Roth noted that the Israeli military appeared to be "treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone," and he observed that the failure to take appropriate measures to distinguish between civilians and combatants constitutes a war crime.
The backlash was prompt. Roth and Human Rights Watch soon found themselves accused of unethical behavior, giving aid and comfort to terrorists and anti-Semitism. The conservative New York Sun attacked Roth (who is Jewish) for having a "clear pro-Hezbollah and anti-Israel bias" and accused him of engaging in "the de-legitimization of Judaism, the basis of much anti-Semitism." Neocon commentator David Horowitz called Roth a "reflexive Israel-basher & who, in his zest to pillory Israel at every turn, is little more than an ally of the barbarians." The New Republic piled on, as did Alan Dershowitz, who claimed Human Rights Watch "cooks the books" to make Israel look bad. And writing in the Jewish Exponent, Jonathan Rosenblum accused Roth of resorting to a "slur about primitive Jewish bloodlust."
Anyone familiar with Human Rights Watch - or with Roth - knows this to be lunacy. Human Rights Watch is nonpartisan - it doesn't "take sides" in conflicts. And the notion that Roth is anti-Semitic verges on the insane.
But what's most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn't that it's savage, unfounded and fantastical. What's most troubling is that it's typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn't possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism.