Robert L. Bernstein

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Robert L. Bernstein is an American publisher and human rights activist.

Career in Publishing[edit]

Bernstein started as an office boy at Simon & Schuster in 1946, moved to Random House in 1956 and succeeded Bennett Cerf as President and CEO in 1966. He served as the President of Random House for 25 years. He published many great American authors, including William Faulkner, James Michener, Dr. Seuss, Toni Morrison and William Styron.

After being invited to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation from the Association of American Publishers, he became interested in writers whose work could not be published in their own countries. Beginning with Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, he ensured that authors like Václav Havel, Jacobo Timerman, Faunier Hernán Ríos Jaramillo and Wei Jingsheng were all published around the world.

Involvement in Human Rights Movement[edit]

After his experience in Moscow in 1973, Bernstein returned to the U.S. and established the Fund for Free Expression, the parent organization of Helsinki Watch which later became Human Rights Watch. Bernstein served as the Founding Chair of Human Rights Watch until 1998 and thereafter as the Founding Chair Emeritus. Today, Human Rights Watch has a staff of nearly two hundred and covers some 70 countries. With offices in a dozen places, Human Rights Watch is renowned for advocacy on a broad range of issues, including women’s rights, children’s rights, international justice, the human rights responsibilities of corporations, refugees, arms transfers and free expression everywhere. He is also Chair Emeritus of the largest Chinese human rights organization, Human Rights in China, with offices in New York, Hong Kong and Brussels.

In October 2009 Bernstein wrote an OpEd for the New York Times criticizing Human Rights Watch for what he considered its unfair treatment of Israel. He argued that the organization he founded had "lost its critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields." He also noted the fact that Israel is the only free state in the area, and despite that, it is the one the organisation attacks the most.[1] In April 2010, The New Republic published a very critical piece regarding HRW, saying "Still, to most readers of the Times last October, even those who closely followed debates over Israel, Bernstein’s piece would have seemed odd: It isn’t every day that the founder of a group turns so publicly on his own creation. What few people outside HRW knew, however, was that Bernstein’s op-ed was the culmination of a long struggle inside the organization that had turned increasingly acrimonious over the years. The debate revolved around a single question: Was the world’s most respected human rights group being fair to Israel? Bob Bernstein wasn’t the only person at Human Rights Watch who thought the answer was no."[2]

Berstein's New York Times op-ed piece highlighted that when he founded Human Rights Watch, the organization primarily focused on closed societies. He criticized the organization for not drawing a sharper line between closed and open societies. [3]

Human Rights Watch responded to the criticism by stating that "Human Rights Watch does not devote more time and energy to Israel than to other countries in the region, or in the world. We've produced more than 1,700 reports, letters, news releases, and other commentaries on the Middle East and North Africa since January 2000, and the vast majority of these were about countries other than Israel. Furthermore, our Middle East division is only one of 16 research programs at Human Rights Watch. The work on Israel is a tiny fraction of Human Rights Watch's work as a whole." [4]

With regard to the on-going internal debate about focusing on closed verses open and closed societies, Human Rights Watch stated, "Mr. Bernstein brought his concerns about our work on Israel to a full meeting of the Human Rights Watch Board of Directors in April. The board unanimously rejected his view that Human Rights Watch should report only on closed societies, and expressed its full support for the organization's work."[5]

In November 2010, Bernstein gave The Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha[6] where he stated "In thinking about campuses and why they are often so polarized, it occurred to me that one of the principal reasons is the encouragement they are getting from human rights organizations, including the one I founded – Human Rights Watch. I have found myself in strong disagreement with the policies and actions in the Middle East of Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations that have similar policies – like Amnesty International and The Carter Center. These disagreements have actually polarized my own relationships with the organization as it chooses not to engage on the issues but instead to declare that I wish special treatment for Israel."[7]

Additional excerpts from what Bernstein said at the University of Nebraska include, that there "has been an asymmetrical war – you might call it a war of attrition in different ways involving Israel – not only with Palestinians but sometimes involving other Arab states, but of course, involving Iran and its non-state proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. In reporting on this conflict, Human Rights Watch – frequently joined by the UN – faulted Israel as the principal offender."[8]

"I don’t believe Human Rights Watch has responded to many responsible analyses challenging the war crimes accusations made by Goldstone and also challenging Human Rights Watch’s own reports – one on the use of phosphorus, one on the use of drones and one on shooting people almost in cold blood. A military expert working for Human Rights Watch, who seemed to wish to contest these reports, was dismissed and I believe is under a gag order. This is antithetical to the transparency that Human Rights Watch asks of others."[9]

"I came back [from a fact-finding trip to Israel in October 2010] convinced more than ever that Human Rights Watch’s attacks on Israel as the country tried to defend itself were badly distorting the issues."[10]

In 2011 Bernstein founded a new human rights organization that primarily focuses on "closed societies" called Advancing Human Rights (NGO).[11]

In 2012, and both became divisions of Advancing Human Rights. The merger was featured in the New York Times and praised Bernstein for his continuous efforts in aiding online activists. Bernstein stated, “We will be trying to say to people in closed societies that we will do everything we can to give you a voice."[12]

International Recognition[edit]

Bernstein has won numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the Florina Lasker Award from the New York Civil Liberties Union; the Human Rights Award from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights; the Spirit of Liberty Award from People for the American Way; the Barnard Medal of Distinction from Barnard College; the Curtis Benjamin Award for Distinguished Publishing from the Association of American Publishers; and, in 1998, the United States’ first Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award, which was presented by President Bill Clinton.

At Yale, Bernstein has been honored by friends and colleagues with the establishment of the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowships in International Human Rights at Yale Law School.[13] The fellowships are awarded annually to two or three Law School graduates devoted to advancing human rights protection around the world. Bernstein has lectured at Yale and served as a Gordon Grand fellow. Bernstein was also honored by New York University School of Law, which established the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights in 2006, annually providing an opportunity for a recent School of Law graduate to engage in full-time human rights work at Human Rights in China.[14]

He is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College, The New School, Bard College, Hofstra University, Bates College, Tougaloo College, and Yale University. He holds a B.S. degree from Harvard.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Minority Report: Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel, Benjamin Birnbaum, The New Republic, April 27, 2010 [1]
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ The Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights at the University of Nebraska
  7. ^ Excerpted from the text of Robert Bernstein speech at University of Nebraska, November 10, 2010
  8. ^ Excerpted from the text of Robert Bernstein speech at University of Nebraska, November 10, 2010
  9. ^ Excerpted from the text of Robert Bernstein speech at University of Nebraska, November 10, 2010
  10. ^ Excerpted from the text of Robert Bernstein speech at University of Nebraska, November 10, 2010
  11. ^ Gary Rosenblatt [2] Never Too Old To Speak Out On Injustice, Jewish Week, march 9, 2010.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Yale Law School, Bernstein Fellowship
  14. ^ Human Rights in China, Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights. [3]