How a Defender of Palestinian Rights Lost His Way

As the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski fought for justice in Israel-Palestine. All that changed once he got to Congress.

Peter Beinart
May 2, 2022

Rep. Tom Malinowski in Washington.

Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP

Washington can be a perilous place for organizations that support Palestinian rights. In March, after Amnesty International’s top official in the city, Paul O’Brien, defended its recent accusation that Israel is practicing apartheid and suggested that many American Jews might be satisfied with a state that didn’t favor Jews over Palestinians, 25 Jewish House Democrats accused him of antisemitism.

A year earlier, when Human Rights Watch leveled the apartheid charge, members of Congress accused the organization of fomenting antisemitism too. But in a strange twist, one of those members was the organization’s former Washington director, Tom Malinowski. On Twitter, Malinowski—now a Democratic representative from New Jersey—declared that “With the fuel of latent anti-Semitism all around us, such words can be like sparks to a fire.”

It wasn’t the first time Representative Malinowski has proven less than sympathetic to the organization he once helped lead. In 2018, the Israeli government began deportation proceedings against Omar Shakir, director of HRW’s Israel and Palestine office, on the grounds that he once advocated boycotting the Jewish state. The following spring, 17 House Democrats wrote to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to halt Shakir’s deportation. In the letter, they praised HRW as “one of the most internationally reputable human rights organizations in the world.” Malinowski did not sign the letter.

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, Malinowski has done a remarkable about-face. Again and again during his three years in the House, he has opposed the very human rights conditions on US aid to Israel for which he lobbied at HRW. He’s done so even while forcefully advocating to condition US support to other human rights-abusing Middle Eastern allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Malinowski is not the member of Congress most hostile to Palestinian rights. He’s not even the congressional Democrat most hostile to Palestinian rights. But he is the member of Congress whose record on the issue most flagrantly contradicts his prior work and his overall commitment to human rights. Many Washington politicians know little about how US policies underwrite the daily degradation of Palestinian life. Malinowski is a different and even more dispiriting case: He does know. Yet to safeguard his political survival he supports those policies all the same. In recent years, journalists have suggested that the Democratic Party is undergoing a “tectonic” shift on Israel-Palestine. Tom Malinowski shows just how much the old rules still apply.

In 2001,
HRW hired Malinowski as its Washington director. In that job, he was charged with advocating for its recommendations to the US officials who might turn them into policy. The Washington director is chosen for their political contacts and savvy, making Malinowski a seemingly ideal fit: He had spent most of the 1990s as a foreign policy speechwriter and staffer in the Clinton administration. Yet that inside-the-Beltway perspective can create tension with the bureaus that write HRW’s reports. The bureaus generally want the Washington director to aggressively promote their policy proposals, while the Washington director sometimes prefers to downplay proposals they consider politically unrealistic.

During Malinowski’s tenure as Washington director, that tension surfaced repeatedly, especially with the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Division, which was vocal about Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights. When members of the division traveled to Washington, Malinowski did not arrange meetings for them with US officials, one former HRW staffer told me. (The former HRW officials I spoke with requested anonymity given Malinowski’s influence as a member of Congress.) And while visible on other subjects, Malinowski was rarely quoted on Israel-Palestine in the press, two current staffers added. Another former HRW official remembered that in private meetings on Israel-Palestine, Malinowski would “say the language had to be toned down. His argument was driven by a frank assessment that we can take the argument this far and no further.” Two of those former staffers and one of the current ones speculated that Malinowski’s wariness may also have been driven by his desire to avoid controversies that could hamper his return to government; Obama appointed him Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in 2014.

But while Malinowski’s positions may have been too mild for some of his former colleagues, he still advocated for a sharp break with Washington’s near-blanket support for Israel. According to reports HRW filed to Congress every year between 2003 and 2008, Malinowski lobbied annually for the US to ensure that its aid to the Jewish state was not used to violate Palestinian human rights. After South African judge Richard Goldstone co-authored a scathing United Nations report alleging that Israel may have committed war crimes during its 2008–2009 war in the Gaza Strip, he came to Washington to promote its contents. There, he held a private meeting with Malinowski and several others, including James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, and another Washington insider who works on Israel-Palestine. HRW urged the US government to endorse the report. When the UN Human Rights Council, under intense US pressure, decided not to debate the report’s findings, Malinowski argued that if Israel would not conduct its own probe, its actions in Gaza should be referred to the International Criminal Court. If Malinowski demanded even a fraction of the accountability from Israel in Congress that he supported while at Human Rights Watch, he would be among the foremost champions of Palestinian rights on Capitol Hill.

If Malinowski demanded even a fraction of the accountability from Israel in Congress that he supported while at Human Rights Watch, he would be among the foremost champions of Palestinian rights on Capitol Hill.

He has done nothing of the sort. In the fall of 2017, Malinowski declared his candidacy to represent the 7th District of New Jersey, an upscale traditional Republican stronghold increasingly dissatisfied with the GOP under Donald Trump. In his campaign announcement, Malinowski touted his human-rights credentials. But on Israel-Palestine, Republican incumbent Leonard Lance, his opponent, sought to make that work a liability. “Malinowski needs to be held in account by voters for his terrible anti-Israel record as a lobbyist,” Lance declared. Rather than defend that record, Malinowski ran from it, endorsing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2018, a group of local Jewish supporters applauded him for criticizing Barack Obama’s decision to abstain on a 2016 UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Since Malinowksi entered Congress, he has repeatedly repudiated positions on Palestinian rights he promoted at HRW. On three separate occasions, he has declined offers from J Street, which supports a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to participate in congressional tours of Israel-Palestine. Instead, during his first summer in Congress, he joined an AIPAC trip to Israel, which featured sessions like “Tikkun Olam: How Israel Repairs the World” and “Start-Up Nation: Israel’s Hi-Tech Innovation and Ingenuity” but little exposure to Palestinian life under occupation.

In February of 2020, 35 House Democrats signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to push Israel to end its blockade on people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. The letter echoed a lobbying report HRW filed with the US Senate in 2008, while Malinowski was Washington director, which called on the US to “press Israel to reverse its strict closure policy towards the Gaza Strip.” Yet Malinowki’s name did not appear among the letter’s 35 signatories. A month later, more than 60 House Democrats wrote to Pompeo conveying their concern over the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. The letter expressed particular alarm over the IDF’s reported use of a US-made Caterpillar D9 bulldozer in the demolitions, and asked what restrictions the Trump administration had placed on its use. If Malinowski read the letter, he might have found its sentiments familiar. In 2004, during his tenure as HRW’s Washington director, the organization published a report urging the US to “restrict Israel’s use of Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers,” which it called “the main IDF tool to demolish [Palestinian] homes.” In an HRW lobbying report that year, Malinowski was cited as having urged Congress to “restrict transfer of armored bulldozers” to Israel. Still, Malinowski did not sign this letter either.

At HRW, Malinowski repeatedly asked Congress to condition US military aid to Israel on its treatment of Palestinians. But in April 2021, Malinowski signed a letter promoted by AIPAC urging congressional leaders to do exactly the opposite. “Adding conditions on security assistance,” it declared, “would be detrimental to Israel’s ability to defend itself.” In a letter to a constituent earlier that year, which was shared with me by an organization that advocates for Palestinian rights in Congress, Malinowski argued that new conditions on assistance to Israel were unnecessary because “US aid is already subject to strict conditions and inspections.” This is true in theory: A law first introduced by Vermont Senator Pat Leahy in 1997 requires the US to vet the human rights records of individual military units in any country receiving US aid. But as a report last year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted, Israel is “the only country in the world for which the United States does not have tracking mechanisms to determine which weapons go to which military unit,” making it virtually impossible for the US to implement the Leahy Law. Surely Malinowski, a longtime human rights professional, knows that. Indeed, it is precisely because the US does not currently impose meaningful human rights conditions on its aid to Israel that Malinowski repeatedly advocated adding such conditions during his time at HRW.

In response to my questions about his record in Congress, Malinowski replied: “I strongly and sincerely believe that the United States should continue to support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, that we should do everything possible to help Israel protect its security, and nothing that would undermine its ability to defend itself.” He added that “It’s perfectly possible to be a strong supporter of Israel while advocating for a two-state solution, and raising concerns about human rights issues,” pointing to his successful effort to push the Biden administration to sanction the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, as well as his public opposition to Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank.

Indeed, Malinowski did publicly call on the Biden administration to punish the NSO group, an Israeli company whose technology has been used to spy on dissidents and journalists across the world. But he emphasized at the time that those efforts were not designed to curb Israel’s domestic human rights abuses. “This is not directed at Israel,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “It is directed at a global private industry of hacking for hire.” And while Malinowski does support a two-state solution, his commitment is tenuous. He has not cosponsored the Two-State Solution Act, a J Street-backed bill introduced last fall that would prohibit US aid from being spent in the Occupied Territories. According to two political activists with direct knowledge of J Street’s work, Malinowski has also told J Street leaders and donors that he would not even publicly use the term “occupation” to characterize Israel’s control of the West Bank. “Most members walk into the House without any knowledge of the daily lives of Palestinians,” explained Arab American activist Rebecca Abou-Chedid. “As advocates we always hope that the more they learn and hear from us, the greater the chance they will speak up. Congressman Malinowski entered congress after a distinguished career as a diplomat and human rights defender and so his silence feels like a choice.”

That choice is particularly striking given Malinowski’s emphatic and often eloquent demands that the US prioritize human rights elsewhere in the Middle East. Last July, he proposed eliminating US military aid to Egypt. After Tunisia’s president seized power from parliament in September, Malinowski, Rep. Gerry Connolly, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib co-authored a letter to the Biden administration asking it to determine whether the action constituted a coup, and to freeze military aid if the US decided that it was.

Malinowski has also been among Congress’s most relentless critics of the government of Saudi Arabia. He has introduced an amendment to freeze the sale of US-made air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, weapons used to kill civilians in Yemen. He also sponsored legislation requiring US intelligence agencies to issue a public report stating whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was involved in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. After the report came out, Malinowski co-authored legislation to ban Bin Salman and other Saudi officials implicated in the murder from entering the US. “He’s a huge champion on Egypt and Saudi,” notes one former HRW colleague, “but of course the political stakes are different than on Israel.”

Malinowski’s demand that the US place human rights conditions on its aid to these countries may appear at odds with his opposition to such conditions on US aid to Israel. But several observers told me these stances were actually interrelated. In Congress, they explained, vocal supporters of Palestinian rights become so politically radioactive that they cannot effectively lobby for a tougher US line against other human rights violators. In the words of a Democratic congressional aide, “If you’re labeled as anti-Israel then other members of Congress will be skeptical of everything you do even if it’s only marginally related.”

Remaining faithful to HRW’s work on Palestinian rights might marginalize Malinowski on the Hill—or get him booted from Congress entirely. In 2020, he won reelection by just over one percentage point. Since then, New Jersey’s state legislature has redrawn his district to make its composition more Republican, tipping it into the Cook Political Report’s “lean Republican” category heading into this fall’s midterm elections.

Like the Republican Malinowski defeated in 2018, the Republican challenging him this fall, State Assemblyman Thomas Kean Jr., is attacking him for HRW’s work on Palestinian rights. Although other New Jersey congressional districts have larger Jewish constituencies, the seventh district’s Jewish population is still significant. And while no Jewish population is politically monolithic, one local activist explained that Malinowski believes his reelection prospects hinge on winning the support of the full breadth of the Jewish community. Moreover, because J Street has continued to back Malinowski despite his tepid support for its two-state agenda, he’s succeeded in raising money from both the Jewish community’s liberal and conservative wings. So far in the 2022 campaign cycle, J Street is Malinowski’s second largest donor. His fifth-largest donor is Pro-Israel America, which has close ties to AIPAC.

Even many of the people critical of Malinowski’s stances on Israel-Palestine told me they sympathize with his political plight. A staffer for a member of Congress who does champion Palestinian rights observed that it’s rare for members in swing districts to do so. And he noted that if Malinowski weren’t in his seat, “you’d have someone who’s not for universal health care, who’s not for labor rights, who’s not for voting rights.”

All this is true. Tom Malinowski is not the problem. He’s a poignant illustration of the problem, which is that even people in Congress who understand the severity of Israel’s human rights abuses cannot challenge them without imperiling their political careers. On Israel-Palestine, Malinowski has chosen to play by Washington’s rules. It’s up to the rest of us to change them.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.