There is compelling coverage today of Amnesty International’s 40-year decline from ineffective supporter of humanitarian causes in the 1980s to a farce obsessed with delegitimizing Israel. I therefore want to share a story instead. It is about Amnesty’s positive role in my life when I was a young adult – and not for the reasons you might think.
Amnesty had a devoted following at the picturesque, elite, American prep school I attended in the early 1990s. In 1991 the Iron Curtain had just fallen. United States and coalition forces had recently defeated Saddam Hussein and liberated Kuwait. The US was aflutter with yellow ribbons and pride.
The same year marked the end of 74 years of murderous rule by the Soviet Union. The long shadow of the atomic bomb – one that haunted the nights of two generations of Americans – disappeared. Despite the first intifada raging in Israel it seemed like 1991 was a pretty good year for humanity.
Not according to my Amnesty classmates. Wearing buttons, attending vigils, and posting flyers at school and around the neighborhood they seemed consumed by anger at America.
Instead of celebrating the hard-won freedom of 250 million souls in Russia and in 14 previously enslaved “Satellite” republics, my Amnesty classmates shouted “Human Rights Now!” They railed against the death penalty in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and other mostly southern States.
Instead of a sigh of relief following the ratification of nuclear arms reduction treaties with Russia’s new president, Boris Yeltsin, Amnesty members were breathless over US restrictions on abortion.
Amnesty group members didn’t even remember their own shtick about “prisoners of conscience.” Most prisoners of conscience were Refuseniks; they were Jews who spent decades trying to leave the former Soviet Union for Israel and America. Tens of thousands, like Natan Sharansky, spent years in Siberian gulags. Others were executed. My mother, Beth Robbins, led efforts in my family to help, volunteering at telethons. She even traveled to Moscow to deliver kosher meat and other supplies.
Yet in 1991, my Amnesty classmates did not notice the long-awaited mass emigration of one million Jews to Israel. When I raised the issue, they didn’t even know what a Refusenik was. According to them the biggest problem was present working conditions of Dutch sex workers.
And while most of the world was pleased that Kuwait was liberated and world energy supply chains were safer, my Amnesty classmates had a different view. The American liberators, not Saddam, were the “war criminals.” Iraq’s unprovoked launching of ballistic scud missiles into Israel (a non-combatant) was the Jewish state’s fault, they said.
This was my first encounter with the post-modern, dystopian, reality-denying clown world that is the American campus. It has gone on for two generations now. It is a world where feelings matter but facts don’t. Where political slogans are elevated to religious mantras. When public debate vanishes lest it reveal the dishonesty or ignorance of the loudest, most powerful, and morally bankrupt interest groups. It is a world in which a teenager – sometimes even a Jewish teenager – mindlessly calls Israel a “war criminal” and Jews as “occupiers” in their own land.
Having developed quite a bit of experience with Amnesty, it was therefore no surprise to me when Amnesty started libeling the Jewish people in the late 1990s. Jew hatred almost always escalates. Moral equivalence is followed by condemnation and then libel. Amnesty came out of the shadows in 2002.
At the now infamous United Nations World Conference against Racism, in Durban, South Africa in 2002 Amnesty leveled defamatory allegations against the Jewish state. It claimed that Israel was racist and violated human rights. No other country – not even the world’s most brutal dictatorships or the Taliban – received any such attention.
Over the past 15 years, Amnesty employees have called Israel a “scum state,” accused Jews in Jerusalem of “capital murder,” called for arms embargoes against our planet’s only Jewish state, and supported the BDS movement. More than a few Amnesty members appear to have admiration and friendships with actual terrorists who have tried (and sometimes succeeded) to kill Jews and Americans.
These are not isolated examples. If you have any question of whether this anti-Jewish rot goes all the way down to Amnesty’s roots, consider this. In 2006, the year of the Second Lebanon War, Amnesty managed to generate more documents and condemnations against Israel than on the genocide in Darfur.
The Jew as a “war criminal” is – as a concept – a linear descendent of the Jew as the “Christ Killer.” It is an antisemitic libel, one that condemned great numbers of us to gallows, to inquisitors, to bayonets, rifles, and gas chambers. Amnesty is therefore worse than dead to the Jewish people and most likely irredeemable.
Back to my youth in the early 1990s: my Amnesty classmates at the Shipley School, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania were a teenage image of the worldwide NGO. Most were female, beautiful, from wealthy families, and popular.
While Amnesty around the world enjoyed support from celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman and dozens of others, locally the Shipley Amnesty members had the support of most of the faculty. They saw in Amnesty members echoes of their former selves.
In 1990, I was a new arrival at Shipley. I was young and fierce. I sported a shock of pitch-black shoulder-length hair. I could pass for a guitarist of a heavy metal garage band. How easy it would have been to forget my principles and my Jewish heritage; maybe even find a girlfriend among the Amnesty crowd.
Yet this wasn’t my crowd and I knew it. I didn’t want to tiptoe on eggshells and hide my core values. I wanted to walk fearlessly among friends who shared my values. I wanted to be myself.
I made my decision in 1990 when Amnesty members stapled anti-Israeli posters and articles on school bulletin boards. The posters condemned violence that was part of the First Intifada. At this time, Amnesty’s messaging was transitioning. It was moving from “moral equivalence” (blaming Israel for using force when it was really acting in self-defense), to outright condemnation. These posters did both. Of course, the materials nowhere mentioned homicidal Arab violence, terrorism, the targeting of Jewish civilians, and intra-factional Palestinian violence – the real causes of the violence.
I didn’t take the Amnesty posters down. Instead, the next day I stapled a pro-Israel poster from FLAME that I clipped from a magazine (today, they are at https://www.factsandlogic.org/). I also posted an article by Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News and World Report. His article, one of many eloquent pieces he wrote during the First Intifada, condemned moral equivalence and set the record straight. I posted them next to the Amnesty propaganda on several school bulletin boards.
I was soon to learn my first lesson about free speech on American campuses. “There is free speech for thee for not for me,” to invert Nat Hentoff’s phrase.
While the Amnesty crowd could staple whatever anti-Israeli libel they pleased, Shipley did not appreciate counterpoint from the likes of me. As soon as I’d put a rebuttal up it would end up in tatters on the floor or find its way to the dean of student’s office.
Undeterred, I came to school with multiple replacement copies and my mother’s staple gun. I would repost as quickly as they came down.
The dean was a young, popular, mustachioed teacher. He took note. After removing several articles he asked to report to his office for a meeting. He ordered me to stop posting articles. I argued and refused. I think he appreciated my stubbornness.
It seemed like the meeting could go either way. He carefully read one of the Zuckerman articles. At one point he mumbled something inaudibly. His demeanor changed and he became good-humored. He never provided consent, but he sent me away saying that it looked like a healthy debate. The battle was over.
Shipley was set achatter. I was now the new Jewish kid who refused to back down. My modest efforts were noticed. Many of my classmates who I had not yet met reached out to me. Some became my closest friends and remain so today.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Asked Hillel the elder.
“To thine own self be true,” said Shakespeare in Hamlet.
Thanks again to the girls of Amnesty.
Chris רמי Robbins is a writer and real estate developer from Denver, Colorado.