Robert L. Bernstein has enjoyed two distinguished careers, one professional and one volunteer, in the interest of freedom of expression. Now, at age 88, he is about to launch a third, which he calls his “obsession” and “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
Bernstein is best known as one of America’s leading publishers. He had a 34-year tenure at Random House, where he was named president and chairman in 1966, and for the next 25 years published many great authors, from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison to Dr. Seuss.
On a trip to Moscow in 1973 to discuss copyright law with the Soviets, Bernstein became interested in publishing the works of dissidents unable to publish in their own countries. Three years later, back in Moscow, he met Andrei Sakharov, and his wife, Yelena Bonner, and struck a deal on the spot to publish the autobiography of the famous Soviet scientist-turned-human rights activist.
That, in turn, led Bernstein to publish other dissenting voices, like Natan Sharansky, Vaclav Havel and Jacobo Timerman, and to launch an organization that became Human Rights Watch (HRW), now the world’s most prominent group of its kind, with an annual budget of more than $40 million and a staff of nearly 200 advocating for and monitoring human rights responsibilities in 90 countries.
But over the three decades of his leadership, as chair and later founding chair emeritus, Bernstein became convinced that HRW had developed a strong bias against one country: Israel.
(An investigative report by Ben Birnbaum, titled “Minority Report,” was published in The New Republic last April, and details the strong case of HRW’s one-sided reporting on Israel.)
After years of acrimonious internal debate and a feeling of isolation within the group he founded and led, Bernstein went public with his complaints in dramatic fashion. He published an op-ed in The New York Times in October 2009 explaining his break with HRW and accusing it of “issuing reports on the Israel-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
Since the article was published, Bernstein has become a pariah himself within HRW, none of whose board members have spoken with him since, he told me in his Park Avenue office several weeks ago.
Tall, robust and energetic, Bernstein is excited to talk about the launching of his latest project, Advancing Human Rights, which he sees as a corrective to the misguided efforts of HRW and groups like it, with an initial and primary focus on the Middle East.
He said organizations like HRW can be harmful because they have an asymmetrical approach to reporting on the Mideast conflict in describing Israel as a “principal offender” of human rights rather than an advocate. Instead of noting that Israel is the only state in the Mideast that supports freedom of speech, the rights of women, an open education and freedom of religion, the focus has become the conduct of war, and Israel is faulted disproportionately and unfairly for fighting back against attempts to destroy the Jewish state.
He readily acknowledges that Israel, like any country, makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. But he believes human rights groups should, most importantly, shed light on closed societies rather than democracies like Israel, which has some 80 human rights organizations of its own that are monitoring its actions, an independent, vigorous press and an active and responsive Supreme Court.
He was deeply upset the day we met by the fact that HRW had just appointed to its advisory board Shawan Jabarin, who heads a human rights organization, Al Haq, in Ramallah, and is believed by Israel to be a senior activist in the Popular Front terror organization.
The HRW appointment was made despite the fact that Israel’s Supreme Court in 2007 described Jabarin as “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” part director of a human rights group and part “activist in a terrorist organization” responsible for murder.
Bernstein said he was “shocked, but even more saddened that an organization dedicated to the rule of law seems to be deliberately undermining it.”
Explaining His Goals
On Feb. 24, Bernstein held the first public meeting of Advancing Human Rights, which he described as still in formation, to explain its goals to a group of about 30 associates and friends, and to introduce Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. Kemp is an expert on warfare who has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”
Bernstein explained that the new group “will try very hard to stick to the issues and not the politics,” and described his effort as “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
He reviewed his primary complaints about HRW’s Middle East division and said that “somewhere along the way” the group departed from championing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and “made one of its main focuses to be an expert on war, which I believe it is not.”
Starting with three young associates whose ages, Bernstein pointed out, total less than his, Advanced Human Rights will focus on closed societies, starting with the Mideast, China and Russia, as well as issues related to women’s rights and free speech.
One associate, David Keyes, explained that he had worked for Natan Sharansky in Israel and founded Cyberdissidents.org in 2008 to promote freedom by supporting online dissident bloggers around the world.
Kemp, the featured speaker who will join the board of the new group, asserted that “global insurgency” is at an unprecedented level, aided by the fact that insurgents do not adhere to the laws of war and instead mingle among civilian populations.
He condemned the UN Goldstone Report on the war in Gaza for not addressing the problem of armies, like Israel’s, unable to attack and defend themselves without the risk of harming innocents.
The fact that Israel was cited for war crimes, despite its restraint, will only encourage terror groups like Hamas and the Taliban, Kemp said, to continue to exploit civilians in such a callous way.
“This work is vital,” he said of Advancing Human Rights, “as the problems presented by terrorists gets worse.”
Edith Everett, a philanthropist and former stockbroker, is the only person who resigned from the board of HRW over its Mideast reporting. (Bernstein remains founding chairman emeritus.)
“For a long time,” though she felt the group was overly critical of Israel, “I felt free to ask questions” at board meetings discussing the Mideast, she recalled this week. “But when that became no longer true, I left.”
A turning point, she recalled, was the 2006 war in Lebanon, when HRW leaders insisted that Hezbollah soldiers were not hiding among civilians.
“They never backed down” from their position, said Everett, a member of The Jewish Week board. “They are not objective people.”
She said she admires Bernstein but is not directly involved in his new project. Others who support Bernstein worry about the credibility of his new venture.
In a quiet moment, Bernstein acknowledged that he is “concerned” about how his new group will be viewed. No doubt some would see it as an effort to bolster Israel’s standing and an act of revenge on HRW, and thus be marginalized by critics.
“If you are for free speech, women’s rights and religious freedom, I believe that makes you pro-human rights above all,” Bernstein said. “And I am for all nations that believe in those ideas.”
An HRW spokesman, Iain Levine, said the group does not agree with Bernstein’s criticisms and noted that HRW covers 17 countries in the Mideast, including closed societies.
In a letter to The New York Times after Bernstein’s critical 2009 op-ed, the current and past chairs of HRW’s board charged that Bernstein was insisting “that Israel should be judged by a different human rights standard than the rest of the world.”
On the contrary, though, what Bernstein does insist on is that groups like HRW judge Israel by the same standards it judges other countries.
And he is not backing down.
He noted with pride that after Natan Sharansky wrote “The Case For Democracy,” he presented a copy of the book to Bernstein and inscribed it: “To Bob, who supported dissidents all his life and now is one.”
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