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Amnesty’s US director: Israel shouldn’t exist ‘as a state for the Jewish people’

Paul O’Brien denies making reported statement; also says he doesn’t believe polls showing vast majority of American Jews back Israel, prompting condemnations and calls to apologize

Amnesty International USA director Paul O'Brien. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Amnesty International USA director Paul O'Brien. (Screen capture/YouTube)

WASHINGTON — An Amnesty International official reportedly said that the organization is opposed to Israel continuing to exist as a Jewish state.

Paul O’Brien, the human rights monitor’s US director, later said his comments were taken out of context.

“We are opposed to the idea — and this, I think, is an existential part of the debate — that Israel should be preserved as a state for the Jewish people,” O’Brien reportedly said in a luncheon with the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington.

Jewish Insider first reported the remarks. On Saturday, O’Brien denied that he had made the comments.

“What I said to the Jewish Insider journalist was to reference Amnesty’s concerns with the 2018 Nation State law. My exact words were as follows: ‘No I don’t believe that Israel should be preserved as a state in which one race is legally entitled to oppress another’ but yes I understand that the Jewish people have a legitimate concern about their existence being threatened and that needs to be part of the conversation,'” O’Brien tweeted.

The rights group official added, “Amnesty supports the right of the Jewish people and Palestinian people to self-determination.”

O’Brien’s initially reported comments immediately drew a torrent of condemnation from Jewish groups.

“If there was any doubt about Amnesty’s credibility as a legitimate voice of authority, it is now abundantly clear that they are firmly entrenched in the cadre of extremist anti-Israel provocateurs,” William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Friday in an interview. Earlier he had tweeted that O’Brien’s remarks were outrageous. “It is clear that their true vision is a Middle East without Israel as a Jewish state.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called on O’Brien to apologize to Jews.

“Your obsessive, relentless focus on Israel, and the erasure of the Jewish right to self-determination illustrates a dangerous degree of bias,” he tweeted.

Amnesty International Headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, September 8, 2015 (chameleonseye/istock)

O’Brien also said he did not believe polls that showed the vast majority of American Jews back Israel.

“I believe my gut 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,” he said, apparently referring to a theory advanced by a small cadre of intellectuals that imagines a binational Jewish-Palestinian state that would act as a safe haven for Jews.

Jewish groups, including groups that are often critical of Israel, were especially offended by O’Brien’s assumptions about what Jews think.

“Polling shows the vast majority of American Jews, like J Street, support Israel’s future as a democratic state and homeland for the Jewish people,” J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group said on Twitter. “Amnesty USA would be well-served to stick to its expertise in human rights + international law — and not try to assess Jewish public opinion.”

Americans for Peace Now praised Amnesty’s human rights advocacy, but also advised the group to stay within the normative bounds of a human rights watchdog.

“Amnesty International plays an important role in documenting human rights violations worldwide, not in interpreting public opinion or in prescribing the collective conversation within America’s Jewish community,” Ori Nir, the group’s spokesman, said in an email.

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