Israel has refused to renew a visa for Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to remain in Israel as a human rights worker, based on his long history of anti-Israel activism. This has caused a storm of controversy and lawsuits, leading to the fair question: Is Shakir entitled to a work visa to promote human rights if what he really is promoting is anti-Israel activism and the destruction of Israel?

Not surprisingly, the international media has taken Shakir’s side.

Under the title “Israel plans to deport a U.S. human rights activist. Democrats are pushing back,” the Washington Post recently reported about the case of Shakir, director of the HRW office for Israel and the Palestinian territories. A few weeks earlier, the paper had published an op-ed by Shakir under the title “Israel wants to deport me for my human rights work.”

Needless to say, many other outlets have covered this story in similar terms.

In most cases, the implications of the articles are clear: the Jewish state has been exposed by HRW as a serial abuser of human rights, and it now wants to do its dirty work without being closely monitored by a respected organization like HRW.  But it’s a false narrative.

Since all too many influential politicians, public figures and journalists are apparently unaware of the truly shameless bias HRW has long held against Israel, it is time for a reminder. Indeed, such a reminder seems all the more urgent given that the recent letter on behalf of Omar Shakir and HRW signed by 17 Democratic lawmakers reportedly stated:

“To carry out our own human rights work and responsibilities in the U.S. House of Representatives, we rely on the reports of Human Rights Watch for balanced accounts of human rights violations wherever they may occur, including here in the United States.”

When it comes to Israel – and likely also when it comes to the US and some other countries – it is quite unrealistic to expect HRW to provide “balanced accounts,” though “balanced” is already a curious choice of words: what exactly are HRW accounts ‘balancing’?

The answer is that HRW accounts are ‘balancing’ the deeply rooted ideological views of its top officials and staff with cherry-picked facts and carefully tailored narratives.

In the following, I will focus on Omar Shakir’s case; a second part (to be published separately) will explain why Shakir’s case must be seen in the broader context of the openly displayed hatred for Israel by top HRW officials, in particular Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at HRW.  As I will show, Whitson’s brazenly biased conduct also justifies the conclusion that her own politics trumps facts and concern for serious human rights abuses even when it’s not about Israel.

The inevitable conclusion is that as important as it would be to have reliable reporting about human rights abuses, HRW is clearly a deeply compromised organization that cannot be trusted to provide truly impartial assessments.

Omar Shakir

Omar Shakir is a US citizen “of Iraqi descent” with degrees from Stanford and Georgetown University and a long record of anti-Israel activism. He was hired as HRW “Israel and Palestine Country Director” in October 2016.

The current case against Shakir has been dragging on in one form or another ever since Israel first denied him a work visa in February 2017. While a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry at first defended the decision by describing HRW as a “blatantly hostile anti-Israeli organization whose reports have the sole purpose of harming Israel with no consideration whatsoever for the truth or reality,” Israeli authorities quickly backtracked after HRW organized a massive outcry.

Shakir was granted a one-year work permit, but when Israel refused to renew it in May 2018 and ordered Shakir to leave the country, HRW sued to block Shakir’s deportation and appealed the decision not to renew his permit. In mid-April of this year, the Jerusalem District Court rejected the appeal and ordered Shakir to leave by May 1st, citing his ongoing support of boycotts of Israel. However, HRW once again appealed the decision, which is now before Israel’s Supreme Court; in the meantime, Shakir has been allowed to stay in the country until May 14th. (Updates to follow as available; see the end of this post).

In addition to pursuing all the options offered by Israel’s legal system, HRW has at each turn mounted a formidable PR campaign that relies on the organization’s powerful connections by mobilizing politicians and public figures to condemn Israel for its unwillingness to ignore the bias displayed by Shakir and HRW.

Omar Shakir’s long record of anti-Israel activism

As I and others have documented in considerable detail, Shakir has campaigned for all of his adult life against the existence of world’s only Jewish state, and numerous tweets from recent years show that he has not changed his long-held views or distanced himself from his activism before he was hired as HRW Israel/Palestine director in fall 2016.

Yet it is noteworthy that Shakir’s activism can be traced back to his freshman year at Stanford in 2003/4, because it arguably took particular fanaticism to promote the “Palestinian cause” at that time: the murderous Al-Aqsa Intifada was still going on; the exploitation of Palestinian children and teenagers for terrorist attacks was already well known; and reliable polls showed that a shocking 71% of Palestinians admired Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as someone who could be trusted “to do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

At that time, early organizers for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaigns against Israel like Shakir could take inspiration from a programmatic essay by BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti that was published in January 2004 at the Electronic Intifada. Barghouti denounced the two-state solution as an immoral ploy to save Zionism and hailed “what may be considered the final chapter of the Zionist project.” As Barghouti cynically declared in a veiled reference to the ongoing terror of the Al-Aqsa intifada: “We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it, for Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.”

As far as Omar Shakir is concerned, Barghouti should be admired as “the Palestinian intellectual Israel fears most.”

By the time Shakir was awarded a fellowship for 2013-14 by HRW, he could boast of a decade of anti-Israel activism.

Already in 2010, Shakir had made it into a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on campus antisemitism because he participated at an event where Jews were compared to Nazis, while terror groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad were hailed as ‘Freedom Fighters’. In his own contribution to the event, Shakir emphasized that he regarded it as “an honor” to be a speaker and he reiterated his support for the so-called “one-state-solution” that would transform the world’s only Jewish state into yet another Arab-Muslim majority state.

Being called out by the ADL clearly didn’t impress Shakir, who has repeatedly denied the rampant antisemitism that is an all but inevitable part of campaigns that seek to delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state as an intolerable evil that must be eradicated. Indeed, Shakir himself demonstrated the pervasive antisemitism among his fellow activists when he tweeted a link to the Electronic Intifada to share what he described as a “[p]owerful cartoon” on a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.

The cartoon shows a small emaciated figure in rags prone on the ground; the helpless figure is identified as a Palestinian by a key – the symbol of Palestinian demands to “return” to Israel – which the figure holds up to ward off a threatening, sword-wielding Islamist who is backed by a shadowy Jew wearing a hat with a Star of David.

As Shakir surely knew when he shared this antisemitic cartoon four years ago, the Electronic Intifada is a rather popular website devoted to demonizing Israel, mainstreaming antisemitism, and cheering Islamist terror groups like Hamas. It is therefore no surprise that the site’s editor Ali Abunimah has done much to promote the vicious notion that Israel should somehow be blamed for, or associated with, the atrocities perpetrated by the widely reviled terror group Islamic State and similar jihadi groups.

Yet in 2015, Shakir even wrote an article for the Electronic Intifada, where he once again haughtily dismissed well-founded accusations of antisemitism against anti-Israel activists while also boasting of his own pioneering efforts to organize for “Palestinian rights” at Stanford during the bloody Al-Aqsa Intifada – which he of course preferred not to mention, noting merely that “in the early and mid 2000s … Palestine felt very much like a fringe issue on college campuses, virtually impossible to build coalitions around and consistently relegated to the margins.”

So in other words: a year after Shakir had a HRW fellowship, and a year before HRW hired him as “Israel and Palestine Country Director,” he boasted of mobilizing support for the “Palestinian cause” during a time when most decent people were unwilling to ignore the fact that in response to the peace proposals at Camp David and Taba in 2000/1, the Palestinians had unleashed a murderous terror war, and that in the wake of the terror attacks on 9/11, they regarded Osama bin Laden as a hero.

It is also noteworthy that in 2017, when Israel first refused to grant him a visa, Shakir gave an interview to the Electronic Intifada, which was only too happy to report that he told them that “Israel puts itself in the same group as Sudan, Uzbekistan, North Korea and Egypt, all of which have barred Human Rights Watch from entering.” In its quest to delegitimize Israel, the Electronic Intifada also finds it useful to cite Shakir rather frequently.

Just like the Israel-haters at the Electronic Intifada, Shakir has of course long been a proponent of the so-called “one-state-solution,” because anti-Israel activists consider the two-state-solution a form of “apartheid” that would allow Israel to continue to exist as a Jewish state. Shakir echoed this view in March 2018, when he criticized a centrist Israeli politician for arguing that “Israel will not be able to be Jewish, if we annex Judea and Samaria, or democratic if we continue ruling over them without rights… We must separate or endanger the Zionist vision.” As Shakir made clear, he considers the “Zionist vision” of maintaining a state with a Jewish majority as akin to a quest for white supremacy.

It is rather astonishing that Shakir was willing to display his hatred for the world’s only Jewish state so openly. He was basically sending a message to the Israeli authorities that would soon decide about the renewal of his work permit, telling them that his idea of fighting for human rights was demonizing Israel as an evil white supremacist apartheid state that should be replaced by a Palestinian state from the river to the sea.

Indeed, on May 15, 2017, Shakir also marked “Nakba Day”, i.e. what the Palestinians see as the “catastrophe” of Israel’s re-establishment, asserting that “Palestinian refugees maintain right of return” and that according to HRW, this was a “binding right, enshrined in intl [international] law” that could not be violated by any government.

Of course, Shakir and HRW know full well that their stance regarding the “right of return” once again only reflects Palestinian propaganda while disregarding the views of legal experts.

Omar Shakir’s support for convicted terrorist and US immigration fraudster Rasmea Odeh

Given that HRW should supposedly oppose terrorism and respect the immigration laws of the country where it has its headquarters, it is particularly noteworthy that Shakir could not restrain himself from signaling his support for convicted terrorist and US immigration fraudster Rasmea Odeh.

Odeh’s case has been covered in great detail on this site; the perhaps most important post was published already in November 2014, providing exhaustive documentation that Odeh and her supporters were lying (see also here) when they claimed that she confessed her participation in the deadly bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969 only after weeks of gruesome torture, including horrific sexual abuse. As a JTA report published just four days after Odeh had been arrested states, “Jerusalem police said today that they had confessions from three suspects directly involved in planting bombs that wrecked the Supersol supermarket in West Jerusalem on Feb. 21 [1969], killing two Hebrew University students and injuring nine other persons.”

Given Shakir’s own long involvement in “pro-Palestinian” activism, it is rather unlikely that he was unaware of Odeh’s fairly well-publicized membership and role in the terror group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Yet, in early November 2014, when Odeh was facing a US court for having deceived immigration authorities by concealing her conviction for past terror activities, Shakir tweeted an article published in the far-left Nation. The article prominently featured lurid details of Odeh’s claims – presented as facts – about the weeks of torture she had supposedly endured in Israeli prison before confessing. Tellingly, Shakir chose to highlight the most shocking claim and tweeted: “’it was not until they brought in her father, threatening to force him to rape her, that she [confessed]’ #israel”.

Anyone with knowledge of Nazi fantasies about Jewish perversions will find it hard to ignore the obvious echo.

When Shakir posted this tweet in November 2014, he was (until 2016) a legal fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) which reportedly “provides legal assistance and training to BDS activists and has filed ‘war crimes’ lawsuits against former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former Shabak Director Avi Dichter.”

Shakir posted several additional tweets in support of Odeh; two of the tweets linked to a short statement at the CCR site which were perhaps written by Shakir himself, and which provide in any case a revealing glimpse of the open support for extremism displayed by CCR. The statement links to “reports” about Odeh at the Electronic Intifada – where she was of course regarded as a hero – and parrots the mendacious propaganda of Odeh’s supporters, claiming that she “was brutally tortured at the hands of the Israeli government” and that the US authorities investigating her immigration fraud were subjecting her to “a politicized trial as a result of her activism.”

So it is clear that before Shakir was hired by HRW, he regarded a convicted terrorist supermarket bomber who had lied about her terrorist past to US immigration authorities as an innocent ‘activist’ and “community leader” who should not have to face any consequences for her conduct.

Ever since Shakir’s employment by HRW became controversial two years ago, HRW wanted everyone to pretend that all the views Shakir had held for all of his adult life no longer mattered if he didn’t keep advertising them publicly on Twitter. But when Shakir once again showed his support for Odeh in March 2017, he also provided a good illustration of the obviously fallacious notion that he would forget about all his deeply held views and magically turn into an impartial monitor of a country he always considered too evil to exist.

Support for Anti-Zionist ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ (JVP)

On March 30, 2017, Shakir tweeted: “Vicious attack on JVP, other rights defenders reflect gov[ernment] intolerant of dissent, afraid of scrunity [sic!] of rights record.”

Shakir’s tweet tagged Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and linked to a document uploaded by the group. The document purports to be an official statement from Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, condemning an upcoming JVP conference and noting prominently: “One of the main speakers at the conference is Rasmah Odeh, a convicted terrorist who was active with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror organization. Rasmah was convicted and imprisoned in Israel for her terrorist activities.” The document also quotes Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan as saying: “The JVP is an anti-Semitic organization which incites against Israel. It regularly cooperates with extremist organizations which seek Israel’s destruction. It is inexcusable that the organization chose to host at its conference a terrorist who was convicted for her involvement in murdering two Israeli students.”

JVP had indeed announced the meeting already in early March 2017, noting right at the outset: “Jewish Voice for Peace is honored to feature deeply respected Palestinian organizer Rasmea Odeh at our upcoming National Membership Meeting.” The announcement further praised Odeh as “a feminist leader in the Palestinian and Arab-American community in Chicago” and brazenly asserted that the “accusations against Odeh stem from a context of long-standing anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim persecution by both the Israeli state and the United States. […] The story of Rasmea Odeh’s label as “terrorist” is a story of Israeli apartheid: a story of displacement and refugees, of occupation and unjust targeting by the security state, of political imprisonment, sexual violence, and torture.”

That this is how JVP would describe a terrorist who had helped to perpetrate a deadly supermarket bombing in Jerusalem is a good introduction if you are not familiar with the group. But it’s important to know a bit more about JVP, because Shakir clearly regards the group as “rights defenders” and thinks that by criticizing JVP’s glorification of a murderous terrorist, the Israeli government shows that it is “intolerant of dissent, afraid of scrunity [scrutiny] of rights record.”

As the ADL noted already in a 2010 profile of JVP, the group “uses its Jewish identity to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism.” The ADL further pointed out: “While JVP’s activists try to portray themselves as Jewish critics of Israel, their ideology is nothing but a complete rejection of Israel. In May 2008, for example, members of JVP protested many of the celebrations of Israel’s 60th anniversary that took place around the country, essentially illustrating that they oppose Israel’s very existence. JVP’s board members even wrote a letter titled, ‘We Will Not Be Celebrating,’ in which they compared the Palestinian Nakba to the Holocaust, stating ‘as Edward Said emphasized, what the Holocaust is to the Jews, the Nakba is to the Palestinians.’”

In July 2017 – that is to say, not long after Shakir promoted the group and its glorification of Rasmea Odeh – the ADL criticized JVP’s “increasingly radical positions” and “questionable tactics,” noting that “JVP has set itself outside even the broadest conception of American Jewry’s big tent, attacking the liberal bona fides of pro-Zionist American Jews and using language to describe American Jewish organizations that veers uncomfortably close to age-old anti-Semitic canards about Jews using their influence to undermine the societies of the countries in which they live.”

That Omar Shakir would promote a group like JVP as “rights defenders” and suggest that their radical activism tainted with antisemitism and their glorification of a convicted terrorist is some form of legitimate “dissent” that Israel should ‘tolerate’ without criticism is a good illustration of HRW’s approach to Israel, because Shakir is not just one “bad apple”. As I will show in a forthcoming second part, there is every reason to think that Shakir was hired for his post as HRW “Israel and Palestine Country Director” not in spite of his decade-long record of fervent anti-Israel activism, but because of it.

Shakir and HRW Unfit for Human Rights Work in Israel

The long history of Shakir’s anti-Israel activism and associations demonstrates that he is an anti-Israel activist, first and foremost. That is a critical consideration for Israel in considering whether Shakir has a “right” to remain in the country as a human rights worker.

Shakir is just one example of how conduct of HRW regarding Israel undermines it overall credibility, and it is long past time for the media to take the openly displayed bias and bigotry of HRW into account – all the more since HRW has reportedly “a massive budget” (in 2017, total revenue was $74.8 million) and wields considerable influence with Western governments and international institutions.

In Part II, I will explain why Shakir’s case must be seen in the broader context of the hatred for Israel by top HRW officials.

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Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli free-lance researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history whose work focuses on anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel