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Amnesty International’s Mea Culpa

Paul O’Brien, the director of Amnesty International’s branch in the United States, has belatedly come clean, though some will sharply question his sincerity.

In a letter a few days ago, he issued an apology to 25 Jewish Democrats in the US House of Representatives who had rightfully condemned his patronizing and willfully malicious comment suggesting there was no need for a Jewish state.

Speaking at the Women’s National Democratic Club last month, O’Brien airily dismissed a survey that 80 percent of American Jews regard themselves as proponents of Israel.

“I actually don’t believe that to be true,” he said. “I believe my guts tells me that what Jewish people in this country want is to know that there’s a sanctuary that is a safe and sustainable place that the Jews, the Jewish people, can call home.”

Reaching the crux of his statement, O’Brien, in a Freudian slip, declared, “We are opposed to the idea… that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people.”

With this arrogant and stupefying remark, he immediately cast himself into the odiferous ranks of Israel haters who could easily be mistaken as shills for Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, all of which reject Israel’s very existence.

O’Brien, inadvertently, also tarred Amnesty International with his hateful brush, seemingly validating the increasingly common view that it is an anti-Israel organization bent on questioning, defaming and undermining Israel’s legitimacy.

Around the time he delivered his offensive comments, Amnesty International released a controversial report accusing Israel of maintaining a “cruel system of apartheid” in connection with its relations with Israeli Arab citizens and Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Stunned by the understandable reaction of the Jewish members of the House of Representatives, O’Brien apologized, saying his comments regarding Israel’s existence were actually directed toward its 2018 nation-state law, which defines Israel as a Jewish state and downgrades Arabic as an official language.

“I stated that Amnesty takes no official position on the legitimacy or existence of any state, including Israel. We have been engaged with the government of Israel for decades to uphold its human rights obligations and will continue to do so.”

O’Brien, too, expressed “regret” for having taken it upon himself to represent the “views of the Jewish people.” As he noted, “What I should have said is that my understanding from having visited Israel often and listened to many Jewish American and Israeli human rights activists is that I share a commitment to human rights and social justice for all with Jewish Americans and Israelis.”

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, issued a clarification, saying it has no objection to Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state under the nation-state law.

Callamard’s clarification was more convincing than O’Brien’s. True, he has explained himself, but his searing words have not been forgotten. In future, he would be advised to exercise extreme caution when he pontificates about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians.

As he has learned the hard way, a person who ventures into this minefield should tread very carefully.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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