A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shooting the Messenger: A Word About Joe Stork

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.


JR said...

The goal is precisely to attack the messenger.

To deny opposing views any legitimacy.

To stigmatize those who hold them as being beyond the pale.

To crush dissent.

To date, it has been effective.

In the context of other disturbing strategic trends, loss of the moral high ground would be a tremendous blow.

How many more Dov Yerima's are acceptable?

What if USA opinion turns?

NGOMonitor said...

Stork claims that the HRW “white flags” indictment targeting Israel is based on “painstakingly researched criticisms” and that “no critic has disputed the facts about the seven incidents written in the report.” This is false. NGO Monitor’s detailed analysis, “Pathological Politics: HRW’s ‘white flags’ report“ (Aug 18) shows that HRW’s “facts” are a collection of inconsistent Palestinian “testimonies”. See http://bit.ly/fv9K4 and http://bit.ly/39RQBY . The long medical and legal sections provide no information to support the indictment. The only credible evidence - from a video showing a Hamas member preparing a bomb and then hiding among a group of civilians waving a white flag – was omitted. This is another in a series of biased HRW "reports" that target Israel by exploiting universal human rights.
Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor

DB said...

Putting aside what Stork said over 30 years ago, he TODAY is a supporter of boycotting Israel, though he makes an exception for academics, and his writings over the past thirty years have been consistently hostile to Israel. If YOU were running a "human rights" group, and you wanted people to take your reports seriously as "objective" analysis, is this the person you would hire? Add to that the fact that his boss, Sarah Leah Whitson, was engaged in anti-Israel activism at the time she was hired by HRW, and it's really no wonder that sensible people treat HRW as an anti-Israel NGO, not as a neutral human rights group.

JR said...

Ah, yes those Arab partisans at HRW and perhaps even anti-Semites to boot.

Here is a list of HRW reports (perhaps also based on other unfounded and inconsistent reports).

(1) 9 Jan - Humand Rights in the Kurdish Areas of Ian

(2) 24 Feb - Abuses by the Syrian Supreme State Security Court

(3) 25 March - Use of White Phosphorous in Gaxa by the IDF

(4) 20 April - Condemnation of Hamas Political Violence

(5) 30 June - Condemnation of Killing of Civilians by IDF Drones

(6) 6 August - Condemnation of Hamas Rocket Attacks on Israel

(7) 10 August - Report on Human Rights Violations in Saudi Arabia

(8) 13 August - White Flag Deaths - the subject of this thread.,

(9) 17 August - Killing of Gays in Iraq.

DB said...

JR, let me know where I can find your dissent, so I can crush it.

DB said...

And btw, it's an extremely intellectually dishonest tactic to respond to serious and documented accusations of bias by HRW, including the history of anti-Israel activism by its two top Middle East officials, by spontaneously raising the issue of anti-Semitism.

JR said...


Thanks your post.

The reference to anti-semitism was raised tongue in cheek. I am not accusing HRW, Joe or Sarah.

As to documented evidence, two reactions.

HRW claims that it gave the IDF a chance to respond and did not receive a response. Do you know if HRW did this? And do you know if the IDF did?

Second, how about we have Dov Yerima or B'tselem investigate?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

A lively debate indeed, but you've each addressed the content of the report, not just the identity of the author. That's my point: the accusations are serious enough that they deserve to be weighed against the evidence, not just dismissed based on the resume of the writer.

DB said...

The problem is that we're relying on HRW to determine the credibility of reports for which we have no direct evidence. They don't, for example, have a videotape of Israel shooting civilians waving white flags. Instead, we're told we have to rely on their interviews of witnesses, they're interpretation of those interviews, etc. If the investigators have an ideological agenda, however, why should we trust them, especially when NGO Watch and others point out some specific difficulties with their reports?

JR said...

NGO Watch is not a completely disinterested party.

Brother Gerald who posed earlier is the author of "Europe's Hidden Hand" which accuses the EU of funding NGO's with an anti-Israeli bent. The title of the publication is reminiscent of articles one might have read in the Dearborn Independent.


Take a read and see the dangerous politicized groups the NGO Watch is keeping an eye on.

Machsom Watch

JR said...

Oops my previous post refers to NGO Monitor not NGO Watch.

NGO Watch as we all know is the joint venture between the purely disinterested non ideological American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society for Public Law and Policy Studies.

NGOMonitor said...

JR -- glad to see that you are reading at least the cover and table of contents of NGO Monitor research reports. Keep reading to learn more about the absurdity of European govt-funded political NGOs (actually GONGOs) that promote the Durban strategy. And then you might want to delve into our discussion on the facade of HRW's "research reports" like Joe Stork's latest example. Ideology will only take you so far -- eventually the substance, or its absence in the case of HRW, becomes to large to ignore.

DB said...

meant "monitor"

Anne Herzberg, Legal Advisor said...

More examples of shoddy research by HRW: In its report "Rain of Fire", HRW claimed "it found no indication that IDF units or Palestinian armed groups were operating in the area at the time" of an alleged wp strike on a Beit Lahiya elementary school. Yet, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reports heavy fighting at the time in the area of the school. And an IDF investigation concluded that its ground forces, including tanks, were operating in the Beit Lahia area against rocket-launching units and terrorist infrastructure. It utilized wp as a smokescreen against anti-tank launchers several hundred meters from the school. Far from a deliberate attack on a school, a few errant felt wedges of wp may have landed near the school causing casualties.

Moreover, HRW claims it was wrong for the IDF to "airburst" white phosphorous in Gaza, rather than "groundbursting" it. Yet, military experts note that groundburst white phosphorous may actually lead to greater civilian casualties than airbursts.

HRW's pattern of getting it wrong factually and technically over and over raises serious questions. If HRW is not ideologically motivated, then its many errors reveal a shocking level of incompetence that should call its work into question not just in the Middle East, but everywhere.

JR said...


Thanks for your post.

I hope you can help me with a few questions.

(1) As a monitor of NGO statements on the Palestinian/Israeli dispute, has NGO Monitor ever agreed with serious criticisms of the State of Israel's conduct or policy? Say in respect to checkpoints, Operation Cast Lead, the July 2006 war.

(2) If so, what were the issues?

(3) In addition to HRW, which NGO Monnitor believes is biased on this issue, could you also advise which other NGO's NGOMonitor believes are similarly biased?

For example, would "Breaking the Silence", HaKomed, Btselem, ICAHD would fall into this group.

I'd be very interested if NGO Monitor considered Ha'aretz biased as say compared to the J Post.

(3) Does NGOMonitor support the Prime Minister's call for the banning of foreign funding of NGO's?

Thanks very much.

Anne Herzberg said...

Dear JR,

I think your questions are largely irrelevant as they relate to NGO Monitor's work. We analyze NGO statements, language and methodology. We neither praise nor criticize governments and we are not media watchdogs. If you follow our work, however, we have repeatedly credited those NGOs reporting on the conflict that do not exhibit political bias, demonization, or engage in activities that inflame the conflict (Human Rights First comes to mind), even when those organizations issue reports that are very critical of Israeli policies. Similarly, you are welcome to look at our website for information on the other NGOs you mention.

Regarding the PMO's policy on government funding of NGOs, I do not think a ban is necessarily the way to go, but there should be full and complete transparency on both sides so that this funding can be adequately monitored and evaluated.

NGOMonitor said...

Returning to the theme of HRW’s bias, the Lund-London Guidelines of the International Bar Association state, “Fact finding and report writing are essential to human rights monitoring,” and require “accuracy, objectivity, transparency and credibility…. Reports must be clearly objective and properly sourced, and the conclusions in them reached in a transparent manner. …The mission’s delegation must comprise individuals who are and are seen to be unbiased.” Stork and Whitson, among others, clearly do not meet these criteria, and as long as they are at HRW, their publications on Israel will continue to be propaganda, wrapped in the façade of research.

Reference: International Bar Association: Human Rights Institute, Guidelines on International Human Rights Fact-Finding Visits and Reports ("Lund-London Guidelines"), 1 June 2009, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4a39f2fa2.html

JR said...

Dear Anne

As to my questions about NGOM's position/work, I think they are highly relevant.

NGOM's position is that HRW is deliberately biased. It is not that their work is sloppy. Or that in cases like these determining truth is difficult.

Would it not therefore be fair to check the work of NGOM to see if there is a consistent pattern of bias?

If there is no case in which NGOM found that serious NGO criticism of the SoI was valid, then we may conclude that (a) the SoI like the Pope in Rome is infallible, (b) that NGOM may have overlooked some valid criticism or (c) that NGOM is itself biased.

If NGOM believes that all NGOs are biased against the SoI, we might reasonably conclude that (c) is the most likely case.

Wouldn't that be consistent with NGOM's own methodology?