If you follow the Middle East online, unless you limit yourself to the Arab side of the fence, you've probably run across some of the commentary from pro-Israeli bloggers, Israeli media, neocon bloggers, and conservative bloggers generally denouncing Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. I don't normally get into personalities here at this blog: not my thing. I did write a couple of posts noting that Chas Freeman, back when he was nominated for the National Intelligence Council, was not the Israel-bashing ogre his opponents portrayed.
Now, like a lot of people who've been around the Middle East community in Washington for a long time, I know Joe Stork. Not well — certainly not as well as I know Chas Freeman, which isn't all that well either — but I've known Joe since the late 60s or early 70s when he was a founding father of MERIP Reports, the ancestor of the current MERIP Middle East Report. Joe has always been somewhere to my left politically, often considerably so. In the earlier days, he and I were both no doubt farther left than we are today. I haven't seen Joe in several years, and aside from random meetings at receptions or on the street haven't had an extended conversation with him in this decade. So I'm not defending Joe's positions today. He's perfectly capable of doing that himself.
What I do want to note is that the attacks on him seem to be a classic case of shooting the messenger. Joe, Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, was the author of a much-headlined report HRW issued, claiming that there were instances of Israel Defense Forces shooting white-flag-carrying Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.earlier this year. Here's HRW's press release, and here's the 63-page report in HTML and also in PDF. And here's an HRW response to criticisms of the report's contents.
I have not read the full report. I intend to do so, but suspend judgment on its contents until I have read it, and Israel's responses to it. When allegations of war crimes are made, they should be investigated and judged, based on evidence and testimony. If the allegations are unfounded, they should be dismissed. If otherwise, Israel should investigate them, as it often has when similar allegations of violations of the laws of war by the IDF have been raised.
But while there has been some effort on the Israeli side to refute the basic content of the charges or to impeach the witnesses, there has also been a concerted attempt to blame the messenger and attack Joe Stork ad hominem without addressing the content of his report. And most of the attacks focus on things he said or wrote over 30 years ago, and one thing he did not even sign, if he had any connection with it at all.
The Israeli daily Ma'ariv did a report on the HRW report which focused heavily on Joe Stork's background, and made the rather sensational charge that he had personally defended the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes. The Ma'ariv article is translated in this Commentary piece by Noah Pollak. Others have noted that the "defense" of Munich was in an unsigned MERIP editorial which also said that the morale-boosting element did not justify the violence. But of course, quoting out of context is a common tactic in ideological disputes. But to directly attribute this to Joe Stork seems a bit extreme, but even if he signed off on it (as he well may have) it was 37 years ago. Has anyone asked if he agrees with the point today? The editorialists just seem to say he never "repudiated" his earlier statement, which wasn't signed by him in the first place. Joe has never to my knowledge been a strong defender of Israel (especially its human rights policies), but I've also never heard from him the sort of radical ideas attributed to him in these attacks.
Now, MERIP in their early days were, indeed, old 60s radicals who first called themselves the "MERIP Collective" and were pretty Marxist in their rhetoric. Joe was one of them. But so were Joel Beinin, who has been President of the Middle East Studies Association; Judith Tucker, Editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies and Director of Academic Studies at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies; and Eric Hooglund, a predecessor of mine as Editor of The Middle East Journal. Bill Clinton didn't inhale, but he figured out a way to finesse his 60s background. I doubt if very many Baby Boomers who graduated in the late 60s or early 70s would like their entire body of expressed opinion in that era to be aired publicly today.
I also remember, however, going to a party MERIP held in (perhaps) the late 70s or early 80s, though I'm not quite sure why I was invited. It may even have been at Joe Stork's house. Much of the conversation was about mortgages. I realized then, that if MERIP was talking about mortgages, the 60s were over.
As I said, Joe can defend himself. But it strikes me as both disingenuous and downright unfair to 1) accuse Joe Stork of holding the same positions he held in the early 1970s; 2) attribute to him a position taken by an anonymous editorial in his magazine and then 3) leave out the qualifiers that denounce the violence.
Or, to put it another way: is this really your best response to the unwelcome message: to attack the messenger? Let's leave Joe Stork out of it and respond to the allegations.