Ending an 18-months legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court decided last Tuesday to uphold the Interior Ministry’s refusal to renew the work visa of Omar Shakir, who had first entered the country as “Israel and Palestine Country Director” of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February 2017. The court reportedly ruled that Shakir must now leave Israel within 20 days.

As I have previously documented in considerable detail, both Shakir and his employer HRW have a long record of anti-Israel activism. (See here and here).

Israeli authorities had therefore been reluctant to grant Shakir a work visa, but eventually relented and issued him a one-year permit in April 2017. The court case that ended with the recent Supreme Court decision was initiated by HRW in May 2018, when Shakir’s visa was not renewed on the basis of a law that allows authorities to bar foreign nationals advocating boycotts against Israel.

While the court case focused rather narrowly on Shakir’s support for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns against Israel, the American-Israeli legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich has rightly emphasized that the ruling against Shakir was “entirely unexceptional” in view of the fact that many countries – including western countries – “have legal provisions barring entry to people that seek to undermine the country.”

Yet Shakir’s case has received a truly disproportionate amount of media coverage, much of which eagerly echoes HRW’s obscene claim that Israel’s refusal to extend his visa proves that the Jewish state is no better than North Korea and other notoriously brutal regimes that don’t allow HRW to operate on their territory. (For a glimpse, you can check out Omar Shakir’s countless retweets of the outrage fest.) Of course, HRW and those who are only too happy to amplify this claim know full well that the court’s decision does not amount to a general prohibition of HRW’s activities in Israel.

However, Israel’s position regarding the Shakir case is arguably somewhat inconsistent. After all, Shakir is a life-long anti-Israel activist. While HRW claims that his antagonism towards the world’s only Jewish state was somehow magically suspended when he was appointed as HRW “Israel and Palestine Country Director,” it is all too obvious that HRW considered Shakir’s activism as an asset when they hired him. Yet according to Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, “HRW is welcome to appoint another representative in Israel in place of Shakir if it chooses to do so” – even though no one who is aware of HRW’s barely concealed anti-Zionist agenda can possibly believe that Shakir’s replacement would be less hostile to Israel.

Given HRW’s reactions after the court ruling, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the organization considers its loss in the legal case as an opportunity for a PR victory that would contribute to Israel’s delegitimization at least as much as any report Shakir might have come up with. HRW put out a statement claiming that the decision to uphold the refusal to renew Shakir’s work visa marked “the culmination of a multi-year effort to muzzle Human Rights Watch,” and HRW executive director Ken Roth asserted that the Supreme Court decision legitimized “efforts to censor mainstream, legitimate human rights advocacy.”

The spin put out by HRW will likely prevail in the media, which generally views the organization as something of a progressive “holy cow” that can do no wrong. So it is usually too much to expect that media reports on controversies between Israel and HRW would mention the fact that Robert L. Bernstein, the founder and longtime chairman of HRW, broke with his organization over its bias against the Jewish state. Partly due to the media’s eagerness to serve as a mouthpiece for HRW, Bernstein turned out to be wrong when he predicted that unless HRW changed course, “its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.”

How little credibility HRW deserves to have when it comes to Israel is fairly regularly demonstrated by Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

In a typical example, Whitson responded just a few days ago to a tweet posted by the completely unhinged activist Ariel Gold. Gold, who recently defended Iranian chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as progressive anti-imperialist slogans, denounced a video posted by the Israeli Defense Forces about the options provided to vegan soldiers. For good measure, Gold echoed the blood libel when she remarked cynically that “Israel lets it’s soldiers make ethical food and attire choices for their time shooting Palestinian children.”

Unsurprisingly, Whitson didn’t object to Gold’s not-so-veiled invocation of the blood libel, but instead responded with an antisemitic remark of her own: “And now we have Vegan-washing!” Several Twitter users who replied to Whitson had no problem to see what the highly-paid top HRW official pretends not to know: that it’s deeply antisemitic to think that Jews do something good only to distract from and whitewash all their evil deeds.

Given the enormous influence HRW wields, it may have been prudent and pragmatic that Israeli authorities chose to pretend that it was just Omar Shakir and not his employer that deserved to be called out for hostility to the Jewish state. But as long as top HRW officials display their antisemitism as openly as Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW will do whatever it can to undermine Israel’s ability to defend itself and to present the Jewish state as an obstacle that has to be eliminated for the sake of the Palestinians.

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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

 
 
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