Jewish founder of Human Rights Watch Robert Bernstein dies at 96

"Robert Bernstein has devoted his life to the active defense of freedom of expression and to the protection of victims of injustice and abuse throughout the world."

May 30, 2019 01:48
2 minute read.
Bobby Bernstein

Bobby Bernstein. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Robert “Bob” Louis Bernstein, the New York-born publisher and founder of Human Rights Watch, has died at 96.

His death was confirmed on Tuesday by his son, Peter. The former president and chairman of Random House publishing was for more than three decades considered to be one of the most influential figures in American publishing, and it was because of his career as a publisher that he became involved in the international human rights movement and played a crucial role in its development.

In the course of a visit to Moscow in 1973, Bernstein discovered that there were many dissident writers who could not be published in the Soviet Union, and who were not always able to smuggle their manuscripts out of the Soviet Union.

This curb on freedom of expression infuriated him, and he was determined following his return to the United States to provide them with a platform in the free world. He started with Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, but then included writers from other parts of the Soviet Union and South American countries that were under military or totalitarian rule.

He established the Fund for Free Expression, and soon became an ardent activist for human rights, particularly after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975.

Together with US ambassador Arthur Goldberg and George Bundy of the Ford Foundation, he launched a series of investigations into human rights abuses, establishing “Watch” committees in the Americas, Africa, Asia and North Africa, eventually merging them all into HRW, the organization that he chaired until 1998. He remained an active chairman emeritus until his passing.

His human rights activities earned him numerous awards and honorary degrees from some of the most prestigious organizations and universities.

In 2016, Bernstein produced his own book Speaking Freely, in which he wrote about the dissidents whose writings he had brought to international attention, among them Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky, Jacobo Timmerman and Liu Binyan.

It’s a book in which he could not help but name-drop, since Random House had published so many of the great writers of the US and beyond with whom Bernstein rubbed shoulders both professionally and socially.

He was proof that a person with talent, vision and dedication can rise to the top without being born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

His career in the publishing world began with Simon and Schuster, where he started as an office boy in 1946, after graduating from Harvard two years earlier.

When HRW became obsessively anti-Israel, Bernstein dissociated himself from this policy, and condemned it in a scathing op-ed published in The New York Times in 2009.

Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor worked closely with Bernstein, who the organization’s president Prof. Gerald Steinberg described as “a brave defender of human rights,” adding: “He founded multiple organizations to promote these universal values, including a series of ‘Watch’ committees that became Human Rights Watch [HRW] in the 1980s and Advancing Human Rights in the 2010s.”

Steinberg praised Bernstein’s lack of hesitation in publicly criticizing HRW “when he understood that it was attempting to turn Israel into a pariah state.” Steinberg spent many hours discussing human rights and HRW issues with Bernstein beginning in 2004, and credited him with helping to shape NGO Monitor as a research organization.

Alon Einhorn contributed to this report.

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