Leading Jewish Republicans differ sharply over a Biden human rights nominee
Amid fierce conservative criticism of Sarah Margon, a former Human Rights Watch official, veteran GOP foreign policy maven Elliott Abrams comes to her defense
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sarah Margon, up for a top human rights role at the State Department, is the latest Biden nominee to face fierce pushback from conservatives, among them the Republican Jewish Coalition.
But at least one prominent Jewish Republican is backing Margon’s nomination. Elliott Abrams, a longtime foreign policy maven with experience in a number of Republican administrations, most recently under former president Donald Trump, has come to her defense.
Abrams, responding Tuesday to a query from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said he understood why one of Margon’s ex-employers, Human Rights Watch, so exercises her critics. But he said that opprobrium should not extend to Margon.
“I’ve had some good and some very bad experiences with Human Rights Watch, but only good experiences with Sarah Margon,” Abrams said in an email.
Margon, who is Jewish, is up for one of the jobs that Abrams held early in his career, during the Reagan administration: assistant secretary of state for human rights. Under Trump, Abrams served as a special envoy on Venezuela and Iran issues.
“I think they have a long and indefensible record of hostility to Israel, and that certainly includes the head of the organization, Kenneth Roth, and many others on the staff,” Abrams said of Human Rights Watch. “The obsession with Israel that led their co-founder the late Robert Bernstein to leave their board still clearly exists. But that record never included the directors of the Washington office — not Sarah Margon nor her predecessor, Tom Malinowski, who is now a congressman.”
Abrams statement came just hours after the RJC recorded its opposition, in blistering terms. “Sarah Margon’s nomination to a key role at the State Department dealing with democracy and human rights is completely inappropriate,” the RJC said in a statement, noting her past employment by Human Rights Watch. “She is an anti-Israel activist whose work makes a mockery of the concept of ‘human rights.’ Her nomination will be resolutely opposed by Republicans and the Jewish community, who value the Jewish state and our strategic alliance with her.”
Human Rights Watch has for years had a parlous relationship with Israel and the pro-Israel community; last week, it published a report accusing Israel of maintaining “apartheid” conditions in the Palestinian territories it occupies. But it works on issues across the entire planet, and it has a battery of employees who barely deal with Israel.
The RJC notably ran ads against Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, during his freshman run in 2018, noting his Human Rights Watch past; he has become one of the most outspoken congressional activists targeting white nationalist extremism and has barely engaged on the Israel issue.
Frontpage Mag, a conservative publication, recently ran an analysis targeting Margon, who tweeted in support of boycotting settlements. That’s a position short of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which targets all of Israel, and its one embraced by Americans for Peace Now, a liberal pro-Israel group that is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The Zionist Organization of America reprinted the Frontpage analysis on its website.
“I am surprised by the claims that Sarah Margon was an anti-Israel activist, which was not my experience,” Abrams said in his statement. “We disagreed on many issues, but she was always sensible and open to argument.”
Margon has earned supportive statements from the Jewish Democratic Council of America and J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East lobby.
“J Street is proud to support the nomination of Sarah Margon, one of our country’s most experienced, knowledgeable and passionate advocates for global human rights,” said its senior vice president for policy, Dylan Williams.
JDCA director Halie Soifer, who has had foreign policy jobs in Congress and in the executive branch, vouched for Margon, having known her for a decade. “She is a national security expert and unwavering defender of human rights,” she said on Twitter. “Smears alleging she supports BDS or Israel’s destruction are patently false.”