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Michael Sfard on the assault on Israeli human rights groups


December 10, 2009 Michael Sfard

This article complements “Anti-Semites”: How human rights activists became public enemies… – posted on this site on 10 December.

The Government Monitor Guillotine

Last week, a conference was held at the Knesset whose purpose was to evaluate the legitimacy of foreign governments’ sponsorship of Israeli civil society organizations.  The conference was initiated by an Israeli organization called NGO Monitor, led by Prof. Gerald Steinberg.  In recent years, the organization has  dedicated time and resources to attacking Israeli human rights organizations working in the occupied territories.  It has published dozens of reports accusing organizations such as B’Tselem, Yesh Din, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel of abusing human rights’ rhetoric, promoting political agendas, and advancing anti-Israel interests.  NGO Monitor produced a list of such “problematic” organizations and even “investigated” ties between their members and various international bodies in order to “prove” they are motivated by foreign interests.

Rather than address human rights organizations’ criticisms of the policies of the  IDF and the Israeli government, NGO Monitor’s reports – like the Knesset conference – attempt to silence the critics through the systematic de-legitimization of their members and sources of funding.

Those familiar with the history of the 20th century easily recognize NGO Monitor’s tired tune.  Their trained ears distinguish the notes representing each name on the black list that “exposes” enemies of the State;  they recognize the old chorus – “guilt by association” – that’s sung every time someone is associated with those blacklisted; they’ve heard that second verse condemning anyone who helps unpopular voices be heard; and the grand finale, which labels the whole lot “traitors” who “represent foreign interests,” seems oddly similar to an old Russian or American song they used to hear on the radio.  No, this tune is not new.  It has been played in many countries over the official radio stations, and the notes have been printed on the pages of government-owned newspapers.  History shows that the singers of this tune monopolize “patriotism” and destroy what is good in their society in its name.  After making their nations pay dearly, history has always cast them out.

Most societies have ephemeral organizations whose goal is to limit the democratic space in which civil society can express its dissent in the name of “patriotism.”  This often means silencing those whose patriotism does not match their own.  However, these organizations rarely pose a real threat to democracy, usually vanishing without a trace when they realize their ineffectiveness.

Nonetheless, Prof. Steinberg and his NGO Monitor are dangerous.  In the Israeli context they are not marginal actors working towards an unachievable goal.  Instead, they are welcome guests among power-holders.  They fit in with the current Israeli government’s unprecedented public war against human rights organizations.  This war was declared when the Israeli Foreign Minister dared send diplomatic envoys to Foreign Ministries, asking them to refrain from funding the organization Breaking the Silence, after it released a report critical of military actions during Operation Cast Lead.  The next battle began when the spokesman of the Israeli army, an officer in uniform, dared to openly accuse B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence of having sinister motivations.  The commander of the police unit responsible for deporting foreign laborers joined the fight and dared accuse organizations that assist migrant workers of wishing to annihilate the State of Israel.  Senior personnel at the Prime Minister’s office took the offensive and dared to even consider legislation that would prevent sponsors from financially supporting human rights organizations.  In such a time of war, it is not surprising that this government warmly embraced NGO Monitor and its supporters.  Indeed, NGO Monitor has turned into a government arm in its struggle against the NGOs.

Yes, these are good times for NGO Monitor and those who wish to silence Israeli civil society, who thrive on Knesset conferences meant to delegitimize dissidents, who publish brutally offensive articles in the media, and good times for parties with open doors in high windows.

NGO Monitor’s supporters, however, fail to understand that their methodology contains a self-destructive mechanism.  Though they claim to promote values like transparency and the non-involvement of foreign bodies in Israel’s internal affairs, they are not transparent themselves, and their political leaders, who they naturally do not investigate, drink plenty of money from foreign wells.  They should be reminded that the leader of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, was executed on the same guillotine that he had previously drenched with the blood of his rivals.

The author is an attorney who represents human rights organizations and, among other things, serves as legal advisor to the Yesh Din and Breaking the Silence, two of the organizations that are mentioned in this article.

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