Meeting Notes

Blinken speaks with Amnesty leader amid fallout over Amnesty USA executive’s comments on American Jews

The meeting shows the State Department’s delicate position of supporting the human rights groups while opposing their stance on Israel

Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, during a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, at Downing Street on May 3, 2021 in London, England.

Days after the director of Amnesty International’s USA branch was met with criticism by lawmakers and Jewish groups for his comments about American Jewish attitudes toward Israel, Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with the organization’s top official, as well as the leader of Human Rights Watch, both of which have levelled accusations of “apartheid” at Israel.

Blinken’s conversation with Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard and HRW executive director Ken Roth occurred after State Department officials rejected an Amnesty report last month that labeled Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid, saying the report applied a “double standard” to the “world’s only Jewish state.” 

A State Department spokesperson declined to say whether Israel was discussed in the conversation, which occurred last Wednesday. “We are not going to comment on the contents of private discussions,” the spokesperson told JI in an email. “We want to underscore that we reject all forms of delegitimization of Israel and believe that the two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state.”

The meeting took place days after all 25 Jewish Democrats in the House released a letter criticizing Amnesty’s USA Director Paul O’Brien for his “patronizing attempt to speak on behalf of the American Jewish community,” which the members described as “alarming and deeply offensive.” The joint letter was written in response to remarks O’Brien delivered at a Washington Democratic club, where he said Israel “shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state” and that his “gut” tells him American Jews want “a safe Jewish space” rather than a Jewish state.

After speaking with Roth and Callamard, Blinken tweeted, “Human rights are central to U.S. foreign policy. We support the important work of human rights defenders.” He wrote that the group discussed “human rights challenges, including in Ukraine, Russia, China, and the Middle East.” 

The reaction to the closely watched discussion seemed to reveal the fault lines that exist in Jewish circles about the controversial human rights groups.

“Does the secretary share the view of every single Jewish Democratic House member who issued a statement condemning the Amnesty USA chief’s highly controversial comments about Israel?” asked Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If so, why did he choose to meet with Amnesty International leadership this week?”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris, writing on Twitter, urged Blinken to “rethink” his approach to the groups “who 24/7 defame & delegitimize Israel — Middle East’s sole liberal democracy, world’s only Jewish-majority nation & a key U.S. ally.” 

Others defended the meeting, noting that the Biden administration has made advocating for human rights around the globe a cornerstone of its approach to foreign policy. “Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are the two largest and most prominent human rights groups in the country,” said Susie Gelman, the board chair at Israel Policy Forum. “They work on a whole lot of issues beyond Israel, so it’s appropriate for U.S. government officials to work with them on a host of human rights issues.”

Still, Gelman added, meetings between U.S. officials and the leadership of those groups “carry the expectation that when high-level officials such as Secretary Blinken meet with these organizations, they will register their strong disagreement over characterizations of Israel as an apartheid state and efforts to delegitimize the notion that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.”

The State Department spokesperson explained that the U.S. has “an enduring partnership with Israel” in which officials from both countries discuss many issues, including “those related to human rights.” 

“We also take seriously all allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including allegations of arbitrary detention, and we continue to urge respect for human rights,” the spokesperson explained, adding, “Regarding the report’s use of ‘apartheid,’ we reiterate that we fully reject that characterization.”

The U.S. has walked a similar line at the United Nations since President Joe Biden rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council early in his presidency. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said at the time that the U.S. “will oppose the Council’s disproportionate attention on Israel, which includes the Council’s only standing agenda item targeting a single country.”