The recent suspension of senior military analyst, Marc Garlasco, from the organisation Human Rights Watch, has come after mounting pressure due to his ‘Nazi’ interests. The hobby practiced by the former civilian employee of the Pentagon included the collection of German and American WWII memorabilia, as well as written publications on the subject and the wearing of uniforms. His extra-curricular habits were exposed by the pro-Israel blog group, Mere Rhetoric.
The investigators had discovered that he posted on collector sites under the pseudonym, “Flak88”, making comments as to his excitement at certain Nazi SS uniforms. As an analyst working primarily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, his interest in Nazi history has been inevitably explosive. He defended his hobby, arguing that he has never attempted to keep it hidden and that it merely stemmed from his family’s history in Germany. Garlasco’s grandfather had been conscripted into the Nazi army during the war, and he attributes his interest in the subject and its history as stemming from a desire to know more about his own family history. Declining to be interviewed, Garlasco instead submitted an essay to the Huffington Post in which he maintained that the Nazi’s were the, “worst war criminals of all time”, and that his interest in their history was not suggestive of sympathies towards them.
Although initially defending their employee, Human Rights Watch on Monday night took the decision to suspend him following further investigation. Another employee, Helena Cobban (academic, activist and researcher), provides her own opinion on her blog. She likens the out-of-work practices of Garlasco to an employee entrusted in child protection keeping underage pornographic material. She argues that there is a clear conflict of interest which emanates from his activities, and that whilst there should be freedom in private life, this does not extend to activities which damage the reputation of the organisation. It is this which has caused those at Human Rights Watch such genuine concern. The incrimination of NGO’s working on the Arab-Israeli conflict of holding particular personal biases is a powerful tool in damaging credibility. Past examples of Aipac’s pressure in the American academic field have revealed the significance of well placed reports and accusations.
Without defending any of Garlasco’s actions, there are many who have argued that the focus on his case by Mere Rhetoric and NGO Monitor is part of a well calculated attack on opposition activities since the new Israeli administration. The victory of Benyamin Netanyahu and the right has been followed by tension within Israel, as their policies clash with those NGO’s which have been critical of the Jewish state. Netanyahu’s policy director, Ron Derner, has unequivocally stated that, “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.” Many therefore argue that this latest revelation is merely an attempt to distract attention from the work which these organisations have been carrying out.
The attacks made against the academic rigour of Human Rights Watch would certainly not be the first against an organisation documenting the conflict in the Levant. The Israeli based human rights group B’Tselem has suffered considerable attacks on its credibility since the January invasion into Gaza. NGO Monitor, a pro-Israeli group with a self-professed interest in monitoring the analytical and statistical merits of NGO’s in the conflict, has produced scathing criticisms of B’Tselem. They argue that the group’s links with the U.S. and its desire to open a Washington office has demonstrated its tendency for, “circumventing Israeli democracy.” The group fails to explain however, how these links could jeopardise its research. These accusations ofcourse also ignore the enormous U.S. presence of the lobbying group Aipac, and the influence which it has in both political and academic circles.
Both groups have come under fire heavily for their reporting and analysis of the January invasion. Their accounts and investigations into civilian casualties, as well as the use of unsavoury tactics such as phosphorous shells, has damaged the international credibility of the Israeli military’s operations regarding the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s new government has been faced with the considerable task of countering this opposition.
Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, claims that his supporters, “work day and night to demonize any individual or organization that raises questions about the military practices of Israel.” In the case of B’Tselem this has largely been confined to questioning the rigour of techniques and the credibility of witnesses. However, the case of Marc Garlasco provides an opportunity to more deeply discredit the work of these NGO’s. Cobban describes the discovery of his extra-curricular interests, which initiate well-toned responses to Nazi and Holocaust outrages, as a, “deus ex machina gift,” in diverting and stifling the opposition.