Charges that the New Israel Fund supports Israeli civil rights groups that played a key role in providing information highly critical of Israel’s role in the Gaza war last year have sparked a spirited, and nasty, debate over the proper role for civil and human rights groups in a democratic state.
A 131-page report, commissioned by a three-year-old Zionist group active on Israeli campuses, called Im Tirtzu, found that 16 Israeli human rights organizations provided 92 percent of the critical information used in the UN report written by South African jurist Richard Goldstone. All 16 are funded by the New Israel Fund (NIF) and include such groups as Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
NIF, founded in 1979, is a philanthropy that funds mostly left-of-center human rights groups (as well as groups addressing other social issues) in Israel. Supporters say it promotes equal rights for all Israeli citizens; critics have accused it of supporting Israeli Arab groups that in turn encourage insurrection against the Zionist state.
“At the end of the day, we have a situation where Israelis are blaming their brothers of committing war crimes without any proof,” said Ronen Shoval, a graduate student and founder of Im Tirtzu. “They are lying. … And the NIF stands behind the Goldstone report. I can’t tell you how important it is that Jewish people in the United States understand that at the end of the day their money [to the NIF] helps Hamas.”
A spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, Naomi Paiss, said that although her group took no position on the Goldstone report, it “is very proud of the groups we have supported. … Their reports were carefully documented and in some instances were the only available information out of Gaza because the international press and the Israeli press were kept out.
“Those human rights organizations are there to do a job,” she continued. “They reported on their concerns about the Gaza operation and were the first to declare that the Israeli government should launch an independent inquiry into the events of Gaza. Had that been done, perhaps there would not have been a Goldstone report.”
But Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said he believes there is a time and a place for self-criticism, and this might not be it.
“The perennial danger of Jewish self-criticism is that it gets used in a lopsided manner,” he explained. “If you have a completely imbalanced critical apparatus that only features criticism of Israel — and Israel as a nation can be criticized — it may not behoove these groups [to continue their criticism] when they are the only voices out there being critical. When you find critical Palestinian voices, they become useful. But if they are criticizing alone and their work is used in a skewed manner, I don’t know how much good they are doing for Israel.”
Paiss insisted that these organizations “were acting out of love for Israel and loyalty to the values on which the state was founded. … They took a reasoned and thoughtful look at what happened in Gaza and put out reports that were then used as sources for Goldstone’s report.”
Shoval stressed the serious implications of the Goldstone report, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said two months ago that the three major dangers facing Israel were the Iranian nuclear threat, the missile threat from Hamas and Hezbollah and the Goldstone report.
“Goldstone has become code for a much broader phenomenon: the attempt to negate the legitimacy of our right to self-defense,” Netanyahu said at the time.
Asked her reaction to claims that the Goldstone report is being used by Israel’s enemies to delegitimize the Jewish state, Paiss replied: “We are acutely aware that Israel has real enemies and that the work of human rights groups are used for their propaganda. … [But] you lose much more in a democracy when you shut down internal criticism out of fear that it would be used by people who hate you. If Israel gives in on basic democratic values, then it is really lost.”
The Im Tirtzu study found that without the NIF-funded NGOs’ reports, “Goldstone would have nothing on which to base most of the claims” he made against Israel.
“In recent years Israel has been increasingly accused of war crimes, and this allegation has become a type of new weapon among leftist organizations,” the study said. “In effect, a small group of leftist organizations that is financed by identical foreign sources has created international pressure that is seriously harming Israel in the diplomatic arena and challenges Israel’s legitimate right of self-defense in the future.”
Hamas is also claiming Israel committed war crimes in its 22-day Gaza incursion, Shoval said, in order to get the international community to put such pressure on Israel that it won’t dare respond the next time Hamas fires missiles at civilians.
He said he plans to bring his report to the Knesset with the hope that it investigates these human rights groups “because they are helping Hamas, and the State of Israel should check to see who is giving them money and whether it is legal or not.
Yisrael Hasson, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told The Jewish Week he is inclined to call for an investigation, “but I don’t want to say for sure because I’m still learning the issue.”
In the United States, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the Im Tirtzu charges “an outrageous broadside,” telling The Jewish Week “it is absurd to blame Goldstone on NIF.”
He said there might be legitimate questions for NIF to respond to about standards for its recipient organizations, ensuring that they not support violence, as was the case with the Ford Foundation. But he said it was unfair to accuse NIF “of undermining Israeli security. Lots of people aided and abetted Goldstone.”
The charges exchanged between Im Tirtzu and the New Israel Fund also became personal attacks when Im Tirtzu took out an ad depicting Naomi Chazan, NIF’s president, with a horn on her head. Chazan is a former deputy speaker of the Knesset and a former member of the Knesset from the Meretz Party.
“She was the head of the campaign against the IDF,” Shoval said in explaining the caricature of Chazan. “She has a major part in deciding where the money is going, and I want to make sure that everyone knows that this is the person standing behind it.”
Asked why a horn was put on her head, he said the word for “horn” in Hebrew also means “fund,” “so it was a funny to put a horn on her head.”
In addition, he said his group staged a protest demonstration outside her Jerusalem home Saturday night.
Paiss said Chazan was in New York at the time and that the protesters mistakenly targeted a neighbor’s home and not Chazan’s.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a Washington-based pro-peace-process lobby group, issued a statement expressing grave concern about the “vicious” attacks against the NIF and Chazan. He said it used “style reminiscent of propaganda from the darkest days of recent Jewish experience, depicting Chazan with a horn on her head and holding her personally responsible for the contents of the Goldstone Report.”
Ben-Ami said also that Im Tirtzu’s political leanings are clear from the fact that it accepted $100,000 from the John Hagee Ministries, a group run by Pastor John Hagee, a major supporter of Israel who has made controversial remarks in the past. Hagee is also founder and president of Christians United for Israel.
Paiss said she believes this attack on her organization is but the latest in a “coordinated attempt to delegitimize Israeli civil society and repress human rights groups and tolerance for dissent and honesty” in Israel. She cited the recent arrests of Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center for her activities in support of women praying at the Kotel, and of Hagai el-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as he was monitoring a demonstration protesting the seizure of Palestinian land in Jerusalem.
“We think it’s a suppression of free speech and that they want the human rights community in Israel to be defunded and defeated,” Paiss said.
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a founder of NGO Monitor, charged that the NIF is guilty of a similar attack against him. He claimed it has been distributing a “finger” painting against him, even though his organization has never engaged in personal attacks.
“It’s an example of how NIF plays rough and dirty in attacking its critics, but is outraged when they are treated in the same way,” he said. “NIF is extremely closed and hostile to any criticism and independent analysis, and they have outraged the Israeli center by their funding of some of the most radical organizations.
“They collect most of their money from outside of Israel, and there is a demand that the Knesset demand transparency from government-funded NGOs,” Steinberg added. “Do NIF-funded NGOs discriminate against Israel when they encourage boycotts of Israel and encourage Israelis to reject the draft? This is part of a wider awareness effort going on in Israel. It is not right wing but centrist.”
Paiss denied that the NIF was behind a “finger” poster directed against Steinberg, whom she called a “voice and outlet for those who believe that any criticism of Israel is anti-Israel.”
“We think that loving examination of Israel’s real problems and proposing solutions is the best way to love Israel,” she added.