Foreign influence, transparency problems of NGO Monitor

Right-wing NGO that went after progressive and human right groups is financed from abroad, including through large grants from undisclosed donors

Last week, Haaretz’s Uri Blau had a short expose – available only in the Hebrew edition – regarding the rightwing non-profit NGO Monitor. As some readers might remember, NGO Monitor recently attacked the German Heinrich Böll Foundation for a grant of 6,000 Euros it gave +972 Magazine in 2011.

According to its website, “NGO Monitor’s objective is to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated agendas.” It does so through attacking public position taken by NGOs, questioning their motives and partners, and going after their sources of funding.

Human rights organizations in Israel are very transparent, partly because of the increasing attention their activities get (this is one, and probably the only positive influence of the work of some conservative groups and journalists). Right-wing groups, on the other hand, seem to operate under different standards. Im Tirzu, for example, submitted its list of donors only after receiving threats from the state’s NGO department. Elad, the organization leading the colonization efforts of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, has received special status from the government that allows it not to disclose any of its major donors.

NGO Monitor, it turns out, is not much better: In 2010, three of its donations came from undisclosed (though legal) sources: The first one, for the sum of NIS 570,000 ($154,000), was passed through the Jewish Federation of North America and the Jewish Agency; the second one, for NIS 100,000, was transferred through the Israeli non-profit Matan – started in 1998 by local tycoon Shari Arison, owner of Israel’s largest Bank – and the third donation came through a British fund registered in the Isle of Man, known for its favorable tax rates.

When the origin of these funds were questioned by Haaretz, the organization that promotes transparency and accountability suddenly becomes very vague. Asked about the NIS half million donation from the Jewish Agency, Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, said:

It’s the kind of thing I don’t remember by heart exactly. Sometimes I don’t deal with money… Someone who sees in our activities something worthy of donations gives us money. Unlike the organizations we write about, we don’t get money from any government”…

The Jewish Agency, which transferred the donation to NGO Monitor, is a quasi-governmental organization, operating in Israel under special status. An effort to understand the source of the donation from the chairman of NGO Monitor non-profit, attorney Yoel Golovansky, had similar results:

I am not that knowledgeable [of the source of the money]. We go through the financial report when it’s submitted, but I don’t remember… if I knew I don’t remember. Usually it’s someone that donated through the [Jewish] Agency.

Who is it?

I don’t know. I don’t know if I knew, but I surely don’t know today.

One could only imagine the press release NGO Monitor would have written if it got those kind of answers from a human rights group.

(I have contacted the Jewish Federation for its comment on the 2010 donation, which will be posted here when I get it.)

We have also learned from Haaretz that NGO Monitor had a budget of over NIS 2 million in 2010, and that it employed 27 people. Gerald Steinberg had a yearly salary of NIS 211,000, more than twice the average Israeli income. Haaretz’s piece reveled that NGO Monitor, which is so sensitive regarding foreign influence on Israeli politics, is basically an American organization, registered in Israel. Most of its donations come from the States; reporter Uri Blau was even answered in English when he called the organization’s Jerusalem office…

This is a major point: the campaign against human right groups in Israel is done under rhetoric which is all about “preventing foreign influence” and therefore “defending local democracy“, yet much of the right’s work in Israel is financed from abroad – especially, but not exclusively, by American Jews and Christian Zionists – not to mention the most important element in shaping the political conversation, Sheldon Adelson’s free tabloid Israel Hayom, the most widely read paper in Israel. Israel Hayom was and still is a losing operation, intended only to manipulate public opinion in favor of the right.

To sum it up, if the people behind NGO Monitor were even remotely interested in democracy or transparency, they would have had something to say about the unknown donors and shady practices of rightwing NGOs like Elad and Im Tirzu; but NGO Monitor itself is a right-wing group, working to limit the public debate in Israel, to stop advocacy and civil rights work for the advancement of the Arab minority (see for example its latest attack on Adalah, the local version of the NAACP), and to prevent criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied territories and beyond.

The fact that NGO Monitor receives its support through the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federation goes to show how invested in those disturbing causes Israeli and Jewish mainstream institutions have become.