Rights Group Assailed for Analyst’s Nazi Collection
A leading human rights group has suspended its senior military analyst following revelations that he is an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia.
The group, Human Rights Watch, had initially thrown its full support behind the analyst, Marc Garlasco, when the news of his hobby came out last week. On Monday night, the group shifted course and suspended him with pay, “pending an investigation,” said Carroll Bogert, the group’s associate director.
“We have questions about whether we have learned everything we need to know,” she said.
The suspension comes at a time of heightened tension between, on one side, the new Israeli government and its allies on the right, and the other side, human rights organizations that have been critical of Israel. In recent months, the government has pledged an aggressive approach toward the groups to discredit what they argue is bias and error.
Injected suddenly into that heated conflict, word of Mr. Garlasco’s interest seemed startling to many. The disclosure ricocheted across the Internet: Mr. Garlasco, an American, was not only a collector, he has written a book, more than 400 pages long, about Nazi-era medals. His hobby, inspired he said by a German grandfather conscripted into Hitler’s army, was revealed on a pro-Israel blog, Mere Rhetoric, which quoted his enthusiastic postings on collector sites under the pseudonym “Flak88” — including, “That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!”
It was a Rorschach moment in the conflict between Israel and its critics. The revelations were, depending on who is talking, either incontrovertible proof of bias or an irrelevant smear.
The Mere Rhetoric posting said Mr. Garlasco’s interests explained “anti-Israel biases.”
The administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also weighed in, but its views on groups like Human Rights Watch were already clear. Mr. Netanyahu’s policy director, Ron Dermer, told The Jerusalem Post in July, “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity.”
After the report about Mr. Garlasco came out, Mr. Dermer called it “perhaps a new low.”
At first, Human Rights Watch, a global organization with headquarters in New York, issued an unequivocal statement of support for Mr. Garlasco, saying he “has never held or expressed Nazi or anti-Semitic views.”
Ms. Bogert at the time said his work has been “extensively reviewed, lawyered, scrutinized, pulverized by our program and legal staff, and we have not in six years ever had cause to question his professional judgment.”
Mr. Garlasco, who worked at the Pentagon helping to target bombs in the second Persian Gulf war, has since traveled the world for Human Rights Watch, investigating and writing reports of the alleged use of white phosphorus munitions in Gaza, cluster munitions in Russia and Georgia, and other military practices in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Ms. Bogert called the attacks on Mr. Garlasco and her group “a distraction from the real issue, which is the Israeli government’s behavior.”
But some who firmly support Human Rights Watch were left unsettled by the researcher’s extracurricular activities.
Helena Cobban, a blogger and activist who is on the group’s Middle East advisory committee, asked on her blog, Just World News, if Mr. Garlasco’s activities were “something an employer like Human Rights Watch ought to be worried about? After consideration, I say Yes.”
Other groups say they have felt more heat from the Israeli government and its allies. “Recently we have seen a new attitude, a stepping up,” said Sari Michaeli, press officer for the group B’Tselem, which recently came under harsh criticism from the Israeli military for a report that concluded that civilians made up more than half of the Palestinian casualties in the Gaza offensive.
Mr. Garlasco declined to be interviewed. But on Friday he posted an essay with the Huffington Post in which he called the Nazis “the worst war criminals of all time,” explaining that he was simply a “military geek” whose interest grew out of his own family’s history.
“I’ve never hidden my hobby, because there’s nothing shameful in it, however weird it might seem to those who aren’t fascinated by military history,” he wrote. “Precisely because it’s so obvious that the Nazis were evil, I never realized that other people, including friends and colleagues, might wonder why I care about these things.”
Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he did not believe that Mr. Garlasco’s interest in memorabilia could support allegations of “premeditated bias.” He said, however, that Human Rights Watch’s credibility might have been wounded because Mr. Garlasco’s hobby “has armed the right-wing fanatics” who “work day and night to demonize any individual or organization that raises questions about the military practices of Israel when they end up even with unintended civilian casualties.”
And that is one thing that seems to especially trouble Ms. Cobban, who said in an interview that the controversy played into the hands of the government and its helpers in the fight.
“They have been given this deus ex machina gift,” she said, “about the discovery of Garlasco and his out-of-hours hobby.”