Scrutinizing the Guardians of Zion, Part II (Louis Frankenthaler)

The following is the second part of a two-part essay. Click here to read part one.

Scrutinizing the Monitor

This essay is a response to the granddaddy of the GOZ’s Professor Gerald Steinberg (head of NGO Monitor and a professor of conflict resolution) who, in his recent Jerusalem Post article, “NGO transparency will protect democracy“, August 19, 2010 continues to perfect his thesis that Israeli human rights NGOs are engaged in an unfair attack on an innocent and righteous Israel that must be thwarted by any means that the GOZ community deems appropriate.  Professor Steinberg leads this charge and is often joined, if not surpassed by other counter-democratic organizations such as Im Tirtzu and Israel Academe Monitor.  Were they to engage in democratic discourse only I would not be writing this, I would likely ignore them or yawn at their obvious right wing delusional paranoia.  But they have surpassed our wildest expectations and found favor with the authorities, particularly with those who have an interest in continuing the human rights violations and the Occupation.

The politics of distraction

If the human rights NGO community were to quantify the time spent working against the efforts of the GOZs, such as NGO Monitor, Im Tirtzu and others to annihilate dissent and peace and justice advocacy it would be clear that, to some extent, these efforts have succeeded at least in distracting us from our true work and we would have been better off ignoring them and continuing to focus on the victims of the system the GOZ community seeks to protect and maintain.   But when critically important values such as human rights, free academic inquiry and democracy are attacked in so serious a manner and with official backing silence and inaction are inoperable.  Therefore, I feel compelled to write this essay, in order to offer an alternative to Professor Steinberg’s thesis that he outlines, again, in a recent Jerusalem Post article about the NGO world and its funding mechanisms.   In his opinion piece he makes a number of direct and indirect assertions regarding the organization for which I work, The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) as well as regarding the human rights community in general.

Countering the disinformation

First of all Steinberg asserts that PCATI and other human rights civil society parties were involved in an effort to prevent him from speaking to the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament in a session addressing the “Situation of NGO’s and civil society in Israel” on 23 June.  Neither PCATI nor any other invited party attempted to prevent Professor Steinberg from speaking.  (See letter in JP on matter from the HR Unit in the EP) In fact Professor Steinberg had ample time to speak. The extent to which his contentions were accepted is another matter.  PCATI is, in fact, pleased to have Professor Steinberg and his organization, participate in public discourse and to be part of the public sphere.  We certainly do not agree with his numerous accusations, assaults and efforts to bring about a situation in which Israel’s human rights community is effectively silenced. In fact we strongly object to his efforts and those of similar organizations to claim that because our work is “political” it is somehow illegitimate.  Yet, even more important, we trust the public sphere, civil society, ordinary citizens, NGOs, academics, activists, human rights funders and others, to non-violently counter and protect democracy from the dangerous vision  and threats that characterize the apparent collusion between GOZs like NGO Monitor & Im Tirtzu and the legislature in the attack on human rights NGOs represents.

The GOZ agenda: purge dissent

Steinberg reinforces and clarifies his delegitimization agenda and his efforts to purge Israeli discourse of a human rights discussion when he says that “this [European] money pays for media advertisements, propaganda materials, Knesset lobbyists, one sided academic conferences and frequent appearances before the Israeli Supreme Court” (my emphasis). My initial response is to say so what and check your facts.   First of all we do not think of our reporting as propaganda. Rather, any examination of the human rights publications produced in Israel will find them to be especially well researched, scrutinized and accurate.  Our quality reporting, agree with it or not, sharply contrasts recent reports about  Israel’s supposed left wing cabal in the academy and the delusional claims regarding a New Israel Fund conspiracy to attack Israel’s legitimacy because of human rights NGOs harsh critique of Cast Lead, some of which found voice in the Goldstone Report.  I might add, because of the human rights community’s accuracy, accessibility and transparency NGO Monitor is able to easily compile its facts about our funding and agendas, add its own analysis and label them as reports or digests.   Secondly, when we hold conferences (NGO Monitor accepted an invitation to attend PCATI’s December Conference on Torture and Impunity) we have well rounded, interesting and relevant participation and, whether the NGO Monitor or anyone else approves of PCATI’s or any other NGO’s speakers is frankly insignificant. Of course, for NGO Monitor to assume the power to somehow interfere in the funding of perfectly legal, legitimate and essential civil society work to generate social change is a chilling thought, at best, and its implications are far more sinister than simple monitoring efforts for the purpose of engaging in civic dialogue.  The other activities he mentions are regular and legitimate human rights advocacy methods used by the local and global human rights community. This work demands funding and we are neither ashamed nor secretive about our funding sources.

Who are the angels?

Steinberg has claimed:

“The idealistic foundation that invokes the rhetoric of universal human rights, based on the norms formed in the wake of the revulsion following the Holocaust, is cited by the NGO community to justify its activities. This rhetoric and the facade of civil society are also the basis on which much of the money is raised from individuals, foundations, and governments. Yet evidence shows that officials who control the activities of these NGOs use the universal human rights rhetoric to demonize and isolate Israel… and largely ignore the context.”  (Soft Powers Play Hardball: NGOs Wage War against Israel, in Israel Affairs, Vol.12, No.4, October 2006, pp.748–768, p. 752)

He continues and says that the human rights NGOs, local and international, are protected by a halo which paints us as angels who can do no wrong.  The implication is that human rights NGOs are somehow involved in a spurious and baseless rhetorical campaign against Israel which is based not on fact but on emotion.  He has even gone so far, in the same article (p. 753), to claim that Human Rights Watch executive director, Kenneth Roth, left his position as a criminal prosecutor in New York in order to pursue a political agenda [against Israel] at HRW. Of course Steinberg, in this Jerusalem Post piece like in the article cited above claims that the human rights community is not only anti-Israel but also it is not transparent.  He is now backing a proposed law to attack NGO funding.  But insight into his thinking, as seen in this 2006 article indicates that he is perturbed because “There is little information on the decision-making processes that are used by these groups to determine their agendas, or why some issues (particularly the Israeli–Palestinian conflict) receive far more attention from NGOs than conflicts in other places” (p. 753).  Far be it for me to ask, but does he want to be invited to participate in Israeli human rights organizations’ strategy meetings?  Would that not be beyond transparency and border on letting the fox into the chicken coop?  Is this not beyond chutzpah? Perhaps, but it is not an idea alien to the GOZs.  Im Tirtzu and the Institute for Zionist Strategies are now trying to determine not only what school children will learn in their civics classes but also what should be taught in Israel’s university sociology and political science departments, even under threat of boycott.

Steinberg himself shrouds his efforts in his own protective “halo effect” of transparency as he condemns Europe and it is funding of human rights defense in Israel, which, by the way, is a very exacting and meticulous process.  I imagine that he would also object to similar European efforts to protect human rights in Myanmar, Russia, China, Mexico or the United States, where the supposedly secret, “due process violating” EU human rights funding mechanism supports anti death penalty efforts, for example and torture treatment and anti torture advocacy against the United State’s use of torture.  I also imagine he would renounce EU funding, tainted by human rights support, of cultural events and academic, scientific and agricultural research in Israel.  Of course, to return to his transparency thesis, he employs it selectively, and, I might add, unnecessarily.  Usually the conservative agenda is based in a distinct aversion to regulation.  Unless, that is, the regulation concerns agendas with which the dominant political group disagrees.  I think that this is the case here. In this respect, the NGO community is already quite well regulated by the current associations law and by the Associations Registrar to which we all report in great detail.  Furthermore, and to be frank, we are tired of saying this, but our organizations are open books.  Our agendas are clear and those who support our work are clearly detailed in all of our publications and interaction with the public. This makes it clear that the regulation that Prof. Steinberg so vociferously advocates is meant not to shed light on our work, but to hinder it with more regulations and to legislate our work out of existence. Steinberg’s thesis further illustrates the view that human rights advocacy is increasingly alien to Israeli society and this is the real danger.

Louis Frankenthaler moved to Israel in 1995 and lives with his family in West Jerusalem. He is a doctoral student and works for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. His political writings have appeared in the Electronic Intifada and in Ha’aretz.