National | Obituaries

Robert Bernstein, Human Rights Watch founder who chided group for anti-Israel bias, dies at 96

(JTA) — Robert Bernstein, a founder of Human Rights Watch who later distanced himself from the group over its criticism of Israel, has died.

Bernstein also headed Random House for nearly 25 years, emerging as a leading figure in the publishing world. Among many top authors of the day, his company also published the works of Soviet dissidents Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner and Arkady Shevchenko, as well as Jewish Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman.

He died Monday of respiratory failure at a Manhattan hospital. He was 96.

Bernstein was the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch, founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch, serving until 1990, according to the organization.

According to its statement on Bernstein’s death, Human Rights Watch said that in 2009, Bernstein publicly criticized the NGO’s reporting on human rights in Israel, writing in an op-ed in The New York Times that it condemned “far more” human rights abuses in Israel than in other Middle Eastern countries ruled by “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records.”

Human Rights Watch and its board responded that the organization’s work on the region was tough and accurate, holding Israel to the same principles and standards applied to all governments around the world. Bernstein continued to serve on Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee until shortly before his death, the organization said.

Gerald Steinberg, the president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which worked closely with Bernstein, described him as “a brave defender of human rights,” according to The Jerusalem Post. On his willingness to criticize Human Rights Watch over Israel, Steinberg said of Bernstein “he understood that it was attempting to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

Bernstein’s memoir, “Speaking Freely: My Life in Publishing and Human Rights,” was published in 2016.

Bernstein, who began his career as a junior office boy at Simon & Schuster, according to The Washington Post, headed Random House from 1966 to 1990. During his tenure he also published famed American authors including James Michener, Toni Morrison, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, E. L. Doctorow and Robert Ludlum, as well as the Czech revolutionary Vaclav Havel, who would become president of Czechoslovakia.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Helen, and three sons, Peter, Tom and William; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.