September 27, 2011

Two dominant forces have defined Arab nations in modern times: autocratic leadership that has denied basic freedoms to its own people, and a deeply ingrained and institutionalized anti-Semitism, centered on a hatred of Israel. Freedom is a growing possibility in light of the Arab Spring, but for this freedom to lead to peace, progress must be made in ending hate speech and incitement to genocide. This is particularly true in Gaza, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Yet at this moment of possibility, the United Nations is fueling discord and anti-Semitism.

The United Nations is doing this by granting legitimacy to Hamas, a terrorist Islamic group, and the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. A vote to add to the United Nations a new member state that calls for the elimination of its neighbor and glorifies terrorism will make peace harder — not easier — to achieve. While Hamas’s calls for genocide most certainly should be condemned, those who would accept the position Abbas has taken, even as recently as Friday, when he submitted to the United Nations an application for statehood, should be aware of the work of Palestinian Media Watch. The group, an Israeli research institute focused on monitoring the messages of all aspects of Palestinian media, has detailed some of the deception of the Palestinian Authority, even during moments of peace talks. For example, while portraying himself to the West as a man of compromise, Abbas said flatly last October that “we refuse to recognize a Jewish state.”

Most shockingly, human rights groups have become the unwitting accomplices of the United Nations as almost every mainstream human rights group has ignored hate speech and incitement to genocide, not only against Israel but against all Jews. The call to genocide has been accompanied by a sophisticated arms buildup along Israel’s Lebanon border over the past five years, defying Security Council Resolution 1701, which called in 2006 for an end to hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. Even after the 2009 war in Gaza, particularly since the Arab Spring has opened up the Sinai, thousands more rockets continue to pour into Gaza, circumventing the Israeli blockade.

Human Rights Watch, which I founded 33 years ago, continues to attack many of Israel’s defensive measures during war, yet it says nothing about hate speech and incitement to genocide. To cite just one example, the speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, called in April 2007 for the murder of Jews, “down to the very last one.” Imagine what leading human rights groups would say if this same speech and incitement were coming from Israel, aimed at the Palestinians.

Human rights groups, which could be highlighting the crimes of Arab dictatorships against Israel and each other, have instead chosen to focus primarily on Israel. They continually discount the extraordinary steps Israel takes to protect civilians on both sides — steps approved by military experts, such as using pamphlets, phone calls and even noise bombs to scare people away from a location before a bombing — while whitewashing Hamas’s desire to eliminate a whole country as just bluster and meaningless words. One would think that, of all organizations in the world, human rights groups would particularly believe that words matter. Words inform intent and influence action. Words and actions need to be taken seriously, especially when they are sponsored by governments.

The real obstacle to long-term peace is the endless and overwhelming words of hate and incitement to genocide effectively spread to Arabs and Palestinians. One example is the textbooks given to millions of children in Saudi Arabia, distributed in the Arab world and beyond, that label Jews “monkeys and pigs.” This continues to foment discord, radicalism and violence.

The absence of criticism by the United Nations and human rights groups is more than just a lack of judgment and fairness. It is proof that the Arab Spring has yet to thaw the old thinking that has stymied progress toward peace for far too long. There will be no peace between Israel and the Arabs while hatred and incitement to genocide continue. Sixty years of spewing hate won’t be undone in a day. Human rights groups should be leading this battle — not ignoring it.

Robert L. Bernstein, the former president and chairman of Random House, is chairman of the group Advancing Human Rights and founding chairman emeritus of Human Rights Watch.