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‘Human Rights’ Activist Loves Settlements As Long As They’re Not Israeli

Sara Leah Whitson publicly campaigns on behalf of settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, but against settlements Israelis put up.


It should come as no surprise that opponents of Israel often reserve their antagonistic policy positions for the Jewish state only, applying standards to Israel that they remarkably refrain from applying to other states. Take, for instance, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s repeated opposition to applying sanctions on Middle Eastern nations, which she has so vociferously announced across the pages of the Washington Post and within the Twittersphere.

Her opposition to sanctions on Turkey and Iran has been remarkably robust for someone who has marketed herself as the BDS queen in Congress, repeatedly throwing her weight behind the infamous “boycott, divest, sanction” movement, which argues for the economic and diplomatic isolation of the world’s only Jewish state.

But Omar’s selective support of such behavior mimics others throughout the anti-Israel movement, who, like Omar, have stridently held Israel to one standard, while purposely failing to hold other nation states to the same one. Earlier this week, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, my colleague at George Mason’s Center for International Law in the Middle East (CILME), published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, underscoring how the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) is busy “promoting boycotts and international prosecution [of Israel] for the supposed crimes of occupation and settlement,” yet “elsewhere, [she] strongly supports settlements in occupied territories.”

More specifically, Sara Leah Whitson publicly campaigns on behalf of settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that once fell within the borders of post-USSR Azerbaijan until 1994, at which point Armenia occupied the area following a lengthy war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory. Armenian leaders have eagerly advocated for Armenians to move into the region, and many Armenian citizens have obliged, given they view Karabakh as their historic homeland. But, as Kontorovich points out, “the United Nations, international courts and the U.S. all consider it occupied Azeri territory.”

Whitson has played an active role in various pro-settlement groups, serving as the master of ceremonies for the fundraiser of a pro-settler charity in 2018 and publicly celebrating the work of other pro-settler groups. For instance, she has endorsed the Armenian General Benevolent Union, which, according to Kontorovich, “supports new settlement construction [in Nagorno-Karabakh] to encourage ‘young families to set down their roots.’”

Yet, despite tweeting out endorsements of wine produced in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, Whitson has coordinated HRW’s efforts promoting the economic boycott of Israel, placing herself in the center of the “anti-settlement” movement. Her activity in the pro-settlement space is not just a matter of vanilla hypocrisy — it evinces a deep level of unseriousness. In other words, it’s abundantly clear that Whitson does not actually believe what she so publicly and aggressively espouses. She is remarkably disingenuous.

Furthermore, given her leadership role within the ranks of HRW, her activity casts serious doubt on the sincerity of HRW’s agenda as whole, particularly with regards to opposing what it perceives to be settlement activity. As Kontorovich succinctly states, “If HRW were serious about its opposition to ‘settlers’ and ‘occupation,’ it wouldn’t have a supporter of them heading its Middle East division.” Indeed, this would seem obvious, but in anti-Israel circles, it is stunningly not.

For instance, BDS activists often advertise themselves as human rights activists. Yet, if this were the case, they wouldn’t remain in an organization whose leadership contains dozens of terror activists.

Indeed, early last year, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs released a report titled, “Terrorists in Suits.” Among other things, it discovered that Hamas and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine activists had infiltrated various BDS groups globally. The report studied more than one dozen international BDS organizations, only to find that senior positions were being filled by 30 terror activists—20 of whom who had been imprisoned for their crimes, some of which which included murder. But something something human rights.

Whitson’s unabashed and open endorsement of pro-settler groups (and repeatedly so) signals that she doesn’t really fear reprimand from HRW or anti-Israel activists in general, and we should take stock of why that might be. Is it possible that those who are so rabidly anti-Israel aren’t anti-Israel on the basis of “settlement” activity, but because of some other pernicious sentiments? How many more Whitsons are there?