Bob Bernstein, HRW founder who later slammed its anti-Israel bias, dies at 96

Champion of political dissent and freedom of expression renounced Human Rights Watch, the NGO he set up, over its Israel critiques; turned Random House into a leading publisher

In a 2009 oped for The New York Times, Robert Bernstein publicly broke from Human Rights Watch, the organization he helped found and long oversaw. (Elisabeth Bernstein)
In a 2009 oped for The New York Times, Robert Bernstein publicly broke from Human Rights Watch, the organization he helped found and long oversaw. (Elisabeth Bernstein)

NEW YORK — Robert Bernstein, an ardent American defender of political dissent and freedom of expression who led publisher Random House and founded Human Rights Watch during the Cold War, died Monday, The New York Times reported. He was 96.

The newspaper cited Bernstein’s son Peter as confirming his death at a hospital in New York.

During his time at the helm of Random House — now part of Penguin Random House — Bernstein, who was Jewish, published US authors such as Toni Morrison, Dr. Seuss and Gore Vidal, Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, and Czech dissenter Vaclav Havel.

The business became one of the largest general interest book publishers during his tenure from 1966 to 1990, according to the Times, with revenues growing from $40 million to $850 million annually.

In 2009, Bernstein turned against Human Rights Watch, accusing the organization he helped found in 1978 of being biased against Israel.

He said the group had condemned “far more” human rights abuses in Israel than in other countries in the Middle East ruled by “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records.”

“When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies,” Bernstein wrote then in the Times.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during the annual press conference of the non governmental organization in Berlin, Germany, January 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

“Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.”

Human Rights Watch rejected the claims.

“Robert Bernstein was a true man of principle,” Washington Examiner magazine executive editor Seth Mandel wrote on Twitter.

“Founded Human Rights Watch and then went public two decades later against it when it had definitively strayed from its mission and become an anti-Israel tool of totalitarianism.”

The Times said Bernstein is survived by his wife Helen and three sons — Peter, Tom and William — as well as his sister Barbara Rosenberg, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

His memoir, “Speaking Freely: My Life in Publishing and Human Rights,” written with Doug Merlino with a foreword by Morrison, was released in 2016.

Human rights fellowships bear his name at Yale and New York University.

In 2011, at the age of 88, he founded a new group called Advancing Human Rights, which he chaired.

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