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Human Rights Watch and Israel: Questions to Answer

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Two months ago the Israeli government announced that it would be launching a campaign against the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the smear industry of supportive rightist NGOs and journalists swung into action with a volley of attacks on the group.

The timing of this move was no coincidence. HRW was the latest, if perhaps most prominent group, to produce a report detailing serious and disturbing human rights violations that took place during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (HRW also reported, with equal condemnation, on Hamas violations). At the time, I blogged here of my sadness that Israel and some of its friends had chosen the low and easy road in responding to such serious allegations, and I suggested,"surely supporting Israel cannot be about undermining efforts to advance human rights around the world," describing that as "fundamentally un-Jewish."

New information has now come to light regarding a particular hobby pursued by HRW's Senior Military Analyst Marc Garlasco. He collects Nazi-era Wehrmacht memorabilia (specifically flak badges), and has published a 450-page book on the subject. The information on Garlasco comes from part of that smear industry -- a right wing Israeli group NGO Monitor -- but it does raise, what for me at least, are real questions that need to be answered.

The Likud-America blogosphere is going Glenn Beck on this story, and some on the left have joined in, albeit more respectfully.

Let me as usual wear my bias on my sleeve -- as a Jew and one with a Holocaust family background, any person's passion for this memorabilia is more than weird, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Looking at the cover of Garlasco's book at the Iron Cross website it is marketed on has been a quick path to appetite loss today. I am not, I repeat not, calling Marc Garlasco a Nazi-sympathizer or worse. That is an extremely serious accusation, one that would be devastating to someone innocent of that charge, and it is one that others have made.

What I am saying is that this does not sit easy with me and cannot be ignored. Yes, I know -- people collect all kinds of things, Garlasco collects World War II memorabilia from other armies, has not hidden his hobby, and this need not imply anything related to the veracity or otherwise of his analysis and reporting for HRW. And still, it doesn't pass my smell test. So I think the onus is on Mr. Garlasco and Human Rights Watch to clarify further. HRW has put out a statement explaining the background to Garlasco's hobby, his expressions of support for Germany's defeat in the war, and describing the accusations of Nazi sympathies as "absurd." That's okay so far, but in this case, not enough.

If this is to be put behind us, I think we need to hear more from Garlasco in his own words. If that is done and in a robust manner, I would expect Israel and friends to, at the very least, respond in the same way as they have greeted actual former real fascists who have recanted and set the record straight. I still feel queasy at the reception that Israel gave to then Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, in 2003, just after he declaratively turned a page on Mussolini, who he previously described as "the greatest statesman of the 20th Century." The guy was head of the succession to the neo-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale for heavens' sake -- I am not so forgiving.

Let's be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Garlasco is anything like a Fini. Indeed, a sincere response by Garlasco passing that smell test would merit at least an apology to him and HRW from those who have jumped to making the Nazi-sympathizer accusation.

And of course that's the point that must still not be lost here. There is a concerted, determined, and even transparent effort to create distractions, to distort, and to avoid the subject when it comes to Israel's behavior regarding the Palestinian territories.

In that respect, the smear industry is being somewhat hoisted by its petard. Even in a case like this which merits investigation, the smear industry has richly earned the skepticism and distrust with which it should be treated. They do not come to this with clean hands. They keep crying wolf and even this supposed wolf, which smells bad, still needs to be proven or rebutted.

Institutionally, there is every reason to have confidence in the professionalism and seriousness of Human Rights Watch under the leadership of Ken Roth. Garlasco did not investigate exclusively on Israel, far from it. He has reported on civilian deaths in Afghanistan, torture, detainee abuse and wars conduct in Iraq, violations by Russia and Georgia, and more (in fact, when Garlasco has indulged in op-editry in his own name, not as HRW, he seems to have exclusively focused on attacking the British government on the issue of cluster munitions -- hardly an anti-Israel obsession or bias there). All those reports are no doubt vetted by HRW's program and legal departments and leadership.

Is HRW's work on Iraq, Afghanistan, and cluster bombs now discredited? Of course not, and the right governmental response, from any government, is to fully investigate serious allegations -- as the US is, for instance, now doing on torture, but the Russians and Georgians are still refusing to undertake. And that is what's still so disturbing on the Israel front -- its ongoing refusal to meaningfully address the documented accusations of IDF violations of laws of war and their impact on the civilian population in Gaza -- and thereby to avoid their repetition.

There are several organizations in addition to HRW that have documented such concerns -- the UN's investigation into attacks on its facilities, Amnesty International's report, and most recently the report of Israeli human rights NGO B'tselem, focusing on civilian casualties.

In responding to B'tselem, the IDF claimed that it had conducted its own inquiry and reached different conclusions, or to quote the IDF spokesperson, the report has been "verified by the Research Department of the IDF Intelligence Branch." We checked ourselves and we're okay ... Oh, dear!

The report of the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission into the Gaza war, led by South African Justice Richard Goldstone, is due imminently, and my main hope there is that the smear industry can maintain a sufficient modicum of dignity to treat Justice Goldstone with the respect that he has earned as a remarkable and inspirational figure in contemporary Jewish life.

Israel and its supposed friends are indulging in a dangerous and highly self-defeating twofer. By responding and continuing to conduct itself in this way, Israel is undermining both its image and its own future security. The best answer, as it has been since the days immediately following the Gaza operation, is not to shoot the messenger but rather to render these reports unnecessary by adhering to B'tselem's call to create an independent committee of inquiry in Israel.