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Who Watches the Watchers?

In the world of politics, especially that of Israeli policy and related activists worldwide, there is a constant effort to demonize the other side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the small cottage industry that has grown up to … Read More

By / August 27, 2009

In the world of politics, especially that of Israeli policy and related activists worldwide, there is a constant effort to demonize the other side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the small cottage industry that has grown up to “monitor” human rights groups.

This industry is led by groups like NGO Monitor and UN Watch, and, while their role is certainly needed and acceptable, their tactics often fall well short of civilized political discourse.

There is nothing wrong with “watching the watchers.” It is not only fair but necessary for the work of human rights groups – whether international ones like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, or domestic Israeli groups like B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence or Gisha – to be scrutinized closely. But there’s a difference between scrutiny and pursuing an agenda to delegitimize all criticism of Israel.

NGO Monitor is headed by Gerald Steinberg, the chair of the Political Science Department at Bar-Ilan University. The group spends its time examining all criticism of Israel, mostly from human rights groups both in Israel and abroad. They trace the funding and rely on a blanket label of “anti-Israel” to describe both the activities of Israeli and international NGOs as well as such funders as the New Israel Fund, European Union charitable funds, Oxfam, the Canadian International Development Agency, and USAID.

NGO Monitor says that by funding such groups as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, these governments and foundations “…contribute to conflict, and in some cases to incitement.” They also use innuendo, such as listing a host of groups “some of which support boycotts, divestment and sanctions” while intentionally including groups who do not support such measures.

This sort of chicanery is meant to not only shield Israel from unfair criticism, which is a laudable goal, but also to discredit legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and actions, which is not. But in fairness, they couldn’t do that if they weren’t getting a lot of help from human rights and other groups.

Israel is in fact unfairly singled out, for example, at the UN Human Rights Council, as the only country in the world under permanent review. Israel’s very real human rights violations are often used cynically for political gain, much as Israel’s own complaints about Arab human rights violations are.

Additionally, Israel has its own very well developed human rights community, part of a larger and vibrant Israeli civil society. Israel’s human rights violations are thus held up to scrutiny more than other countries. The US frequently contends with the same issue. Still, if the violations weren’t so severe, Israel would not have so much to worry about.

NGO Monitor turns this stunning example of the reality of Israeli democracy into a smear against those Israelis who try to hold Israel to the standards of its own high ideals. By asking why such groups as B’Tselem, Gisha, Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence and others do not raise issues of intra-Palestinian violations (which some of them do, often), they are intentionally framing these Israeli groups as having an innately Palestinian agenda.

In fact, those groups, as well as Israeli peace groups like Shalom Achshav or Gush Shalom, are distinctly Israeli, and act as the critics any democracy needs to function properly. Naturally, being Israeli groups, they focus much more strongly on Israeli human rights violations because their task is to improve Israeli society and policies.

Consider, for example, NGO Monitor’s criticism of B’Tselem: B’Tselem categorizes suicide bombings and rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians as "war crimes" and "a grave breach of the right to life", according to international humanitarian law. Yet its political agenda is evident in the minimal attention it gives to intra-Palestinian human rights abuses (including torture, extra-judicial executions and abductions).

One need only look at B’Tselem’s web site to see it is a leader among non-Palestinian groups in criticizing intra-Palestinian abuses (see: http://www.btselem.org/English/Inter_Palestinian_Violations/), some even argue they are more so than an Israeli group should be. But indeed, B’Tselem focuses much more on Israeli violations and this does shed light on B’Tselem’s “agenda”: it is, primarily concerned about the actions of its own country, of strengthening the democracy it is part of. Its reason for existing is not primarily the good of the Palestinians—that is for Palestinians to pursue. It is for the good of Israel, because no democracy can sustain itself while turning a blind eye to its own behavior.

A major feature of NGO Monitor’s work is tying their criticisms (which are, to be fair, themselves a mix of distortions with a few legitimate complaints) to the network of governments and foundations that fund NGOs. This has come to the fore in recent weeks with the group Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked the Dutch government to review their funding of Shovrim Shtika in the wake of the group publishing testimonies of soldiers who fought in Gaza earlier this year and reported human rights abuses. He has also publicly blasted the group.

Operation Cast Lead as a whole has been a storm for Israel to weather, and one that is unlikely to end soon. Israel’s refusal to launch a credible, independent investigation of the accusations that have been made about its conduct in Gaza, or to cooperate with any outside investigations, makes it impossible to get past the issue and ensures it will continue to be raised.

So instead, try to attack the funding.

Israeli NGOs are particularly vulnerable to such attacks. Funding for Israeli groups comes in very great measure from outside the country. That’s true for all Israeli groups, right to left, across the political and ideological spectrum. Israel lacks the sort of vast philanthropic network that, for instance, the United States has. Nor does the government allot significant sums for non-profits as one finds in Europe. In the US, lower taxes and tax breaks sustain a culture of philanthropy, while in Europe, higher taxes means the governments take more care of charitable giving. In Israel, though, the higher taxes pay instead for a massive defense budget.

So, just as foundations and other community sources in the US are the primary source for many right-wing groups in Israel, so too are international foundations the source of human rights and left-wing groups’ funding.

This isn’t foreign interference in Israeli affairs, it is the system of non-profit operations Israel has set up. And the attack on only one side of this system is unfair. NGO Monitor and similar groups should indeed be there to “watch the watchers,” but not to defend the Israeli government in any and all cases. Such groups should be there as part of the democratic system, and they should be there to ensure that human rights and peace groups’ work is of the highest standards, as those groups do with the government.

Until they stop pursuing an ideological agenda, the “watchers” are not doing their jobs.

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