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Trump admin considers branding Amnesty International, other human rights groups as 'anti-Semitic'

If carried out, the move could give Israel or other governments a pretext to ban or restrict the work of the rights groups, critics say.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference in Washington
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21, 2020.Nicholas Kamm / Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is weighing a proposal to brand prominent human rights organizations as "anti-Semitic" and to discourage governments from supporting their work, five congressional aides and a Department of State official told NBC News.

Backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the proposed declaration would take aim at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and possibly other rights groups that have criticized the Israeli government over its policies toward Palestinians, the sources said.

The possible move has caused alarm among career officials at the State Department and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in Congress, the sources said. The rights organizations, which often share their research with U.S. diplomats and military officers, said they were blindsided by the proposal and that it could be used by foreign governments as a pretext to ban or restrict their work abroad.

The move could prompt legal challenges in court and lead government officials to shy away from having any contact with human rights groups, former officials said.

The proposal was first reported by Politico.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that seeks to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, said it would be a mistake to carry out the proposal.

"We oppose broadly applying the anti-Semitism label to these human rights organizations; doing so is neither accurate nor helpful to the fight against anti-Semitism," a spokesperson for the ADL said. "Rather, this move would politicize the fight against anti-Semitism."

The Anti-Defamation League has had sharp disagreements with the human rights organizations over the years about Israel, the spokesperson said, but added, "To suggest that these groups are somehow constitutionally anti-Jewish is plain wrong. It would be shortsighted and counterproductive for the State Department to blacklist them in this way."

If carried out, the action would be based on a recommendation from the office of the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, and would portray the human rights groups as anti-Semitic and advise foreign governments against funding the organizations, the sources said. But the details of the proposed move remain under internal debate.

Some lawyers in the department have raised serious concerns about the legality and implications of such a decision, including whether it violates the First Amendment rights of the human rights organizations, two Democratic congressional aides said.

The potential declaration, if approved, would cite the human rights groups' work related to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which has promoted boycotting Israeli products over Israel's construction of settlements on land Palestinians claim for a future state.

Draft documents supporting the possible decision cite examples of alleged bias by the three rights organizations, referring to reports published by the groups and their criticism of Israel's settlements and treatment of Palestinians, according to a person familiar with the documents. Many of the examples appear to be lifted almost verbatim from the website of NGO Monitor, a right-leaning organization in Israel that often criticizes domestic and international human rights groups, according to the same source.

One of the examples includes comments by the mayor of Frankfurt, who accuses Amnesty International of "promoting ethnic cleansing," the source said.

The three human rights groups that could be blacklisted say they do not endorse the BDS movement.

"It's shocking, confusing, offensive, troubling. I am almost speechless," Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said of the proposal. "This sort of smear is deeply troubling and not the sort of thing we would expect from the U.S. government."

Human Rights Watch, along with other rights groups, has a long-established relationship with the State Department, the Pentagon and other government agencies, and sometimes briefs ambassadors before they start new posts. Although Human Rights Watch regularly delivers tough criticism of the United States, the group also works in close cooperation with administrations from both parties on some issues, providing detailed reporting on rights violations that shape U.S. policy, Prasow said.

Bob Goodfellow, interim executive director of Amnesty International USA, called the proposal the latest attempt by the Trump administration to undermine international human rights organizations.

"The administration is spreading misinformation and working to undermine those who are working to protect human rights," Goodfellow said in a statement. "Amnesty International USA is deeply committed to fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate worldwide, and will continue to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied. We vigorously contest any allegation of anti-Semitism.'"

Goodfellow added that the modern human rights movement emerged from the aftermath of the Holocaust, when countries came together to ensure such atrocities would never occur again.

Oxfam said it had a long history of working to protect the rights and lives of Israelis and Palestinians and vowed to continue its work.

“Any insinuation that Oxfam supports anti-Semitism is false, baseless, and offensive,” said Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s global policy lead. “Oxfam does not support BDS or call for the boycott of Israel or any other country. Oxfam and our Israeli and Palestinian partners have worked on the ground for decades to promote human rights and provide lifesaving support for Israeli and Palestinian communities.”

It's not the first time the Trump administration has singled out leading human rights groups for criticism.

Two years ago, Nikki Haley, the then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of siding with Russia and China for rejecting her proposed reform of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Afterward, Haley excluded the two groups in private policy briefings.

Human rights advocates said the proposal is part of a wider pattern by the Trump administration of undermining or ignoring concerns about human rights, including imposing sanctions on top officials at the International Criminal Court while avoiding tough penalties against Riyadh after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The head of the American Jewish World Service, Robert Bank, called the proposed move "appalling" and T'ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, said it was "ridiculous" to portray the rights groups as "anti-Semitic."

"Israel is a state bound by international human rights law, like all other members of the United Nations, and like other countries can be criticized when it fails to live up to these commitments. " Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T'ruah, said.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.