Thursday, February 24, 2011

How the NGO Transparency Bill Covers Up Its Supporters’ True Intentions

Now that the bill mandating Israeli NGOs to publicize donations received from foreign governmental entities has passed, it is time to look at the motives and the intentions of those who supported it – and these are anything but transparent.

The "transparency" campaign has been waged by the rightwing NGO Monitor ever since "Breaking the Silence" published its Gaza testimonies, and NGO Monitor's director, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, read the group's open acknowledgement to its European donors. NGO Monitor never investigated nor uncovered a single "hidden" donation to any of the NGOs the bill covers; what the organization learned is there for anybody to see. Prof. Steinberg has recently claimed that "In theory, Israeli NGOs should be covered by the existing reporting requirements for non-profits, but in practice, many political advocacy groups have found ways to avoid such transparency by registering under different frameworks, or avoiding any Israeli oversight mechanism." No names of groups are mentioned; if there are such groups, what does that have to do with the other groups – the ones he doesn't like – who have all registered as non-profits? Why should they suffer for the sins of the non-transparent groups? That is the sort of smoke-screen argument for which NGO Monitor is justly famous.

Still, one could think that it is not enough for Israeli NGOs to publish acknowledgements that are only noticed by a group like NGO Monitor; these acknowledgements should be larger or more available to the public. But isn't that the job of a group like NGO Monitor – to publicize those NGOs whose activities it doesn't like? Does a democratic society need anything more than that in terms of transparency?

And here we come back to the absurd claim that the present law is based on the "Foreign Agent Registration Act". There is no resemblance at all between the two, as I noted in my previous post. FARA requires that agents representing the interests, usually commercial, of foreign governments, institutions, political parties, and individuals, register with the US Government. Those agents are usually lobbying, public relations, or law firms . For example, a public relations firm registered when it was hired by the Israel Ministry of Tourism; a lobbying firm registered when it was hired by the the World Zionist Organization to influence members of the legislative and the executive branches to effect an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code. I can guarantee you that more Israelis know about the European funding of human rights NGOs than Americans know about the lobbying efforts of the World Zionist Organization. And if one looks at the list of foreign agents registered in FARA, I couldn't find a single NGO.

I imagine that Prof. Steinberg knows all this, just as he knows that the claim that the bill is based on FARA is not to be taken seriously. He knows that the issue is not one of "transparency" and never has been. No, the purpose of the transparency bill is to delegitimize the NGOs, by tarring them with the brush of "representatives of foreign governments". These are not "human rights NGOs" or even groups with a political agenda; these are political lobbyists for foreign powers – hence, the comparison to FARA. That also explains why, unlike FARA, the Israeli law requires NGOs not only to report to the government but to publicize on their own websites and in their literature the sources of their funding – to uncover their "shame", as it were. Indeed, the original bill would force them to announce at every event what the source of funding for that event was. Like the Surgeon General's warning, the announcement requirement is to deter and to stigmatize. What does this have to do with FARA?

And here we arrive at the dishonesty of those behind the campaign. I do not doubt Prof. Steinberg's sincerity when he writes "Europe tries to interfere with and manipulate the legitimate outcome of Israeli elections." If so, then why allow the NGOS to apply for foreign governmental grants? Wouldn't it be better simply to outlaw contributions from foreign governments, if they constitute such an anti-democratic interference? If these organizations are hurting Israel, and are doing so with foreign governmental money, why not go the route of India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, which empowers the government to determine which contributions can be accepted and which cannot by NGOs?

Outlawing such grants may be too much even for the current rightwing government, and it would certainly hurt Israel's image abroad. By focusing on the bogus issue of transparency, NGO Monitor and the Knesset can avoid discussing the real issue that should be discussed: the propriety of soliciting money from foreign governments, individuals, organizations, A first stab at that discussion was attempted in today's Haaretz by settler leader, Israel Harel, who chastised the NGOs for seeking foreign assistance, which offended his patriotism. Coming from Harel, one of the architects of the settlement enterprise, which has received tens of millions of dollars from foreign sources – sources that are completely opaque to the Israeli public – that may seem ridiculous. But his point is legitimate and the question is worth debating. A true democracy would open that debate, a debate that would encompass all sectors. The reason why Israel does not conduct such a debate is because it prefers to hide its true intentions, to trick itself into believing that it is no worse than the United States or other democracies. But trust me -- when this watered-down bill fails to deliver the goods, FARA will give way to FCRA

In short, as in every case when it acts improperly, Israel has to engage in massive self-deception and false analogies with decent countries with which it likes to compare itself.

Hence, the lack of "transparency" of the motives of those behind the bill – even to themselves.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Knesset Passes Human Rights NGO Harassment Bill

When an Israeli newspaper last Fall published a list of Bibi Netanyahu's potential list of donors for the 2007 elections, which included certified strident rightwingers like Kenneth S. Abramowitz, the Prime Minister's office responded that "Netanyahu makes his decisions in accordance with what is good for the State, not according to the opinions of donors, as important as they may be". Fair enough – when it comes to the Right. But when it comes to the Left, apparently not.

Israel is now the first "Western" government to require of NGOs that receive human rights funding from "foreign governmental entities" to report and publicize the funding in addition to the reports they already submit as non-profit organizations. There is no other comparable legislation in the Western world, although authoritarian regimes (see under Egypt), and recently India, have passed similar legislation.

As for India,

Following concerns raised by right wing groups and law enforcement agencies that civil society was exposing human rights violations by state agencies to the international community, the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) was passed in August 2010. Among other things, the law allows for broad executive discretion to designate organizations as being of a 'political nature' and thereby prevent them from accessing funding from abroad.

Sound familiar? Israel is not there yet, but is on the way.

Apologists for Israel like Noah Pollak are making an absurd comparison between the Israeli law and the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires agents for foreign governments to register with the US. An "agent of a foreign principal" is defined under the act as someone who:

  1. Engages in political activities for or in the interests of a foreign principal;
  2. Acts in a public relations capacity for a foreign principal;
  3. Solicits or dispenses any thing of value within the United States for a foreign principal;
  4. Represents the interests of a foreign principal before any agency or official of the U.S. government.[


None of this is remotely relevant to the Israeli NGOs, which are not lobbying or acting on behalf of political interests of England, Holland, etc., -- unless you define human rights activity as the political interests of these states.

But FARA is highly relevant to Israel lobbyists like Noah Pollak.

Pollak and others of his ilk believe that ultra-right wing Israeli organizations that violate human rights law and US policy can receive anonymous donations from gambling moguls and Christian evangelicals who are praying for Armageddon and the mass conversion of the Jews. But Israeli NGOs that uncover injustice and the violation of human rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories, like the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and B'Tselem, should walk around with signs saying, "Brought to You by the European Union," – even though they already acknowledge external support in their publications, on their websites, and, of course, already report all their contributions.

h/t to Matt Duss

Saturday, February 19, 2011

US Joins Security Council In Condemning Israeli Settlements as Illegal – in 1969

In 1969, the United States voted with the rest of the Security Council to condemn Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and plans to build Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The Security Council "urgently calls once more upon Israel to rescind forthwith all measure taken by it which may tend to change the status of the City of Jerusalem." And it explicitly mentioned expropriation of land.

Several days earlier, the US ambassador the United Nations had said in a speech to the UN:

The United States considers that the part of Jerusalem that came under the control of Israel in the 1967 war, like all other areas occupied by Israel, is occupied territory and hence subject to the provisions of international law governing the rights and obligations of an occupying Power. Among the provision of international law which bind Israel, as they would bind any occupier, are the provisions that the occupier has no right to make changes in law or in administration other than those which are temporarily necessitated by his security interests, and that an occupier may not confiscate or destroy private property. The pattern of behavior authorized under the Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949 and international law is clear: the occupier must maintain the occupied area as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation. I regret to say that the actions by Israel in the occupied portion of Jerusalem present a different picture, one which gives understandable concern that the eventual disposition of East Jerusalem may be prejudiced, and that the private rights and activities of the population are already being affected and altered. (Cited in Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, by Amir S. Cheshin, Bil Hutman, and Avi Melamed (Cambridge: Harvard, 1999), pp. 46-7.

I should point out that this statement was made before a single Jewish settlement had been built outside of Jerusalem. The censure was in reaction to Israel construction of Jewish settlements over the Green Line in East Jerusalem – settlements that are now the "neighborhoods" of Ramot Eshkol and Ma'a lot dafna, East Talpiyot and Neveh Ya'akov.

Over the last 43 years, UN ambassadors and consuls have fumed and chastised, but there have been zero consequences for Israel. Now there are close to half a million Jews living over the Green Line, with hundreds of thousands of dunams confiscated and expropriated, and the lives of many Palestinians a living hell, as they see their lands, resources, freedom of movement become increasingly restricted.

And the United States has the sheer chutzpah to say that the question of settlements is a matter of the (non-existent) peace negotiations, and not one of international law.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thank You, Mr. President

Thank you, Mr. President, for vetoing the UN Security Counsel Resolution condemning the Israeli settlements as illegal.

Thank you for making America the only country in the world to support Israel on this matter.

Thank you for contradicting long-standing US policy on the settlements.

Thank you for not abstaining on this vote – which is what the US has done in the past.

Thank you for talking the talk on settlements but not walking the walk.

Thank you for allowing Israel to say, as it always does, "We and the US have disagreements on various items, but our bond is strong."

Thank you for doing nothing about the biggest settlement activity within East Jerusalem in over forty-three years.

Thank you for undermining the PA and Abu Mazen.

Thank you for showing the Palestinian people how much – or how little – you can be relied upon.

Thank you for holding the Palestinians hostage to a non-existent (fortunately) peace process.

Thank you for allowing Israel to kill any chance of a two-state solution.

Thank you for making the United States irrelevant in the Middle East.

And Shabbat Shalom from your neighbor up 16th Street.

On The Curse of “Balance”

There have been two events advertised in the Jewish community that would have allowed some non-consensus speakers to speak – provided there was consensus balance.

Peter Beinart gave the Amos Perlmutter Memorial Lecture and Calvin Goldscheider, a highly respected demographer and scholar-in-residence at the American University Israel Studies Center, responded. For an account of the evening see Louise Ross's piece at Mondoweiss. I know Cal Goldscheider, so I was not surprised to learn that the evening was scholarly and dignified; from the little I know of his views from personal conversation, I would describe Goldscheider as a liberal Zionist of the old school (like Arthur Hertzberg, not at all hesitant about criticizing Israel), so that the space between the two was generational rather than ideological. But that, too, is space. Beinart's generation (and younger) are either becoming polarized on or disaffected from Israel. The "middle" is shrinking. And I suppose that Goldscheider, after agreeing with some points in Beinart's thesis, presented a picture that would be much more favorable to the continuance of that comfortable middle.

In short, no debate between left and right; rather, a matchup of non-consensus and consensus. For – and here's the point – I doubt that Beinart could have given his talk without a consensus respondent for balance. When David Makovsky of WINEP gave the first Amos Permutter lecture in 2006, there was no respondent, nor no deed for one. Makovsky is about as consensus and non-provocative as you can get. No need for "balance" there.

The second event was cancelled when the "balance" couldn't show up. The 92nd Street Y was going to sponsor an event called, "Faces of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Loss and Forgiveness" with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish and Laura Blumenfeld. I read about it also on Mondoweiss. Here was how it was announced:

In 2009, Palestinian doctor and Israeli television personality Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three of his daughters during a Gaza raid. In 1986, a Palestinian terrorist shot author Laura Blumenfeld's father. Abuelaish and Blumenfeld discuss with ABC News' Christiane Amanpour how—despite such personal tragedy on both sides of the conflict—we can find common ground and political solutions.

Note that despite an attempted symmetry of suffering and loss, the formulations are quite different. Blumenfeld's father is shot be a Palestinian terrorist. Abublaish's daughters are lost during a raid. Whose raid? We are not told that Israeli tanks shot the shells that killed the girls in their bedroom. And why not? Isn't it obvious?

No matter. When Blumenfeld cancelled, and nobody else suitable on the Jewish side could be found (are there no members of the Bereaved Parents Circle available? ), the event was cancelled. And, brother, I don't blame the 92nd Street Y caving in on that one. It must have been hard enough to get a Palestinian victim on the platform in the first place, much less after if he had been the only person on the platform.

The irony is, of course, that Dr. Abuelaish is precisely the sort of Palestinian that Jews like to hear; no matter how much he has suffered from the Israelis, he refuses to hate them.

This business of "balance" is a curse. But it could be worse. There are times when balance is considered itself imbalanced.

Take, for example, last year's panel at Brandeis with Judge Goldstone and Ambassador Dore Gold. Goldstone was introduced by Daniel Terris, the Director of Brandeis's International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and Gold by S. Ilan Troen, the Director of the Israel Studies Center. Terris said a few words about international human rights law and then introduced Judge Goldstone. Troen, by contrast, devoted most of his time not to introducing Ambassador Gold but to attacking the Goldstone report, highlighting its unfavorable reception in the US. He came across as Gold's debating partner – a gross violation of academic practice and civility. In order to get Goldstone at Brandeis, you needed Gold, and Troen – not to mention President Reinharz – all defenders of Israel – to provide balance.

Or how about the panel on BDS at the upcoming J Street conference, where Rebecca Vilkomerson of JVP will be presenting the case for BDS. Kudos to J Street for its liberalness. But Vilkomerson is speaking on a panel with three other speakers opposing BDS. So the rightwing will focus on Vilkomerson's appearance, whereas the left will focus on the imbalance of the panel.

And who is left in the "middle"?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Taglit/Birthright Israel to J Street U: Drop Dead

Taglit/Birthright Israel's relentless march to the right continues. First, it axed a planned Birthright trip co-organized by J Street U to Israel. Now it has launched a website for young adults called Take Back Zionism, whose "partners" include nobody to the left of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance. So J Street and J Street U (formerly, the Union of Progressive Zionists) are excluded.

Oh, I suppose one of its partners, Ameinu is progressive Zionist….but let's face it, how many young people affiliate with Ameinu and not with J Street U? For that matter, how many young people have heard of Ameinu? I don't mean to diss that organization (I do that here), which has come out on behalf of the Sheikh Jarrah activists, and against some recent Knesset decisions. But why are they partnering with an initiative that doesn't include J Street or J Street U? Is there a real split among progressive Zionists here?

On the disallowal of the Birthright J Street U trip there is a balanced article here. The official reason given by Birthright? J Street has a political agenda, and it does not fund trips that are organized by groups with political agendas. (AIPAC has a political agenda, but AIPAC is kosher for Birthright, since it supports any Israeli government, no matter what shade of rightwing nationalist it may be, from the extreme right of Avigdor Lieberman to the moderate right of Tzipi Livni.)

But what if J Street U doesn't actually sponsor the trip, but a trip is organized for progressive Jewish youth? Here is the response of Jacob Dallal, Birthright spokesperson:

"There have been trips around social justice in Israel," [Dallal] said. "Those trips have been vetted. If the trip provider said, 'We want to do a thing on social justice,' we could have judged it on its merits, but that never took place."

One wonders whether Birthright considers Israeli activists on the West Bank, or the struggle of its Palestinian citizens for equality to be considered "social justice"? I imagine that as long as "social justice" stays within the Jewish consensus – a trip to Neve Shalom, a visit to a clinic for Ethiopian Jews, etc. – that's all right with Birthright.

As for Take Back Zionism -- the drab, alte kakke-looking website has old content paid for by old Zionists in an effort to attract the Rachel Maddow crowd. All right, maybe I am a wee unkind. But take a look at its partners, which include, "Artists 4 Israel" (countering the artistic boycott), Friends of the IDF, The David Project, Standwithus, ZOA, NGO Monitor, Hasbara Fellowships, etc., etc, and you will see how heavily weighted this group is to the right, the Ameinu fig leaf notwithstanding.

I suppose that Take Back Zionism is a way to prolong that Birthright afterglow. But if it wants to appeal to young Jewish progressives on the Upper West Side, it should be talking with J Street U.

When I asked why J Street did not appear as a partner, and why Zionism was limited to the conventional statist kind, I received this reply:

We are not limiting Zionism at all, in fact, the point is to expand Zionism and move it away from the narrow connotation it currently holds in contemporary discourse

There are a number of reasons why J Street is not on this list- first and foremost, they do not have a young leadership group or 'next generation' activity in NYC- you will find that our partner organizations have a way for alumni to actually engage and become involved.

If there are opportunities for young adult engagement in the NY metro area with J Street that you have heard of, please do let us know.

Well, it's nice to know that NGO Monitor has a young leadership group in NYC, and that it numbers more than the young adults affiliated with J Street…If you believe the above, I have a bridge to sell you….

By the way, J Street does have a young professionals network in NYC, and it is putting on an event this week. See here.

Look, I will take back some of my criticism of the site when J Street is included. (Needless to say, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes are not in the pantheon of Zionists there, but the official version of Zionism excluded them long ago, and Americans can't be blamed for that.) But I have a feeling that Take Back Zionism is being disingenuous here.

And I am sure Kenneth Bob can explain to his rank-and-file why Ameinu is kosher as a partner for Take Back Zionism, whereas J Street, on whose advisory board he sits, is treif.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Shabbat Shalom, Asmaa and Mizrayim

The above video was made by Asmaa Mahfouz on January 18, 2011

Liberating the Egyptians and Softening Our Hardened Hearts

Israelis, and Jews worldwide, have mixed feelings about the Egyptian revolution. From a tribal perspective – and, sadly, that's the dominant perspective among Jews with whom I associate – there is the fear of the impact of the revolution on Israel. Would the new Egyptian regime, assuming one comes into being, keep the peace with Israel? Would the Muslim Brotherhood gain the upper hand? Would the border with Gaza stay sealed? Is this good for Hamas? Is it good for Israel?

From a moral perspective, however – and, fortunately, that's the dominant perspective among the e-crowd, Jewish and non-Jewish, with whom I associate – supporting the Egyptian revolution is a no-brainer. On the one hand we have a regime that has only become more authoritarian in recent years, and, on the other, non-violent protesters from all walks of life who are struggling to be free. How can any decent human being not be thrilled by the prospect of this liberation? And how can Jews, who themselves came into being as nation in the furnace of Egyptian bondage, not identify with the Egyptian struggle for freedom?

In fact, I would argue that the ambivalence that some Jews are feeling can itself be turned into an argument against a Jewish state. For if the price to pay for a Jewish state is acquiescing in tyranny and injustice for reasons of realpolitik – as Israel did with apartheid South Africa – then arguably that price is too high, especially if you feel, as I do, that there are alternatives to a Jewish state for the survival and thriving of the Jewish people and its heritage.

Of course, I understand the counterargument – that the world is full of messy compromises and strange bedfellows, and that one's national security is paramount. I understand the necessity of the United States' alliance with Stalin during World War II. And it would be foolish not to support Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. But, to quote Avishai Margalit, there are compromises, and there are rotten compromises. An alliance in which Israel supplies nuclear knowledge and armaments to a rogue state that oppresses its people like South Africa is a rotten compromise. Not to support the Egyptian revolution for fear that it may turn out bad for Israel (and what that means is subject to debate) is shortsighted politically and unjustifiable morally. And both are cardinal sins for Jews.

Some Jews and Israelis who support the Egyptian revolution are still apprehensive. After all, there is that perennial bogeyman, Islamism, which may rear its head. Isn't it preferable for Israelis to have as neighbor an authoritarian regime that supports, or at least does not actively oppose its interests, then a regime where Islamic movements like Hizbollah and Hamas are represented? With monarchs and tyrants one can come to terms. But what if the Arab public is opposed to the existence of Israel? Why should Israelis support democratization of their enemies?

To which I reply: the Jews should have thought of that before they established the state of Israel. If they could not establish a state that would be able to live in peace with its Arab neighbors, but decided to press on with an "Iron Wall" mentality, then they are reaping what they sowed. But the premise itself is flawed. Were Israel to make peace with the Palestinian – within the framework of one state, two states, or a federation, in which the Palestinians had freedom and self-determination along with the Israelis, and the refugees would be given the choice to return or not, the vast majority of Arabs would be willing to accept that – not perhaps, as the most desirable outcome, but as something that could be tolerated for the foreseeable future. Just as I would not ban religious Jewish political parties in Israel from participating democratically, although they are territorial maximalists, so neither would I exclude religious Muslim parties, even though, as an orthodox Jew, I am personally unhappy with religious political parties and have never voted for one. (For insight into the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood, see Helena Cobban's 2007 interview in Foreign Policy here.)

The revolution in Egypt is already a victory for that growing force in society, "civil society." The protesters have been called the generation of Facebook and Twitter. But let's not forget that they are primarily the generation of human rights discourse. Yizhak Laor is dead wrong when he writes that the Left in Egypt "has drowned in European subsidies to tens of separate NGOS for human rights, whose siginficance has not been one of change but rather of a disciplined preservation of the status quo." This may be the view of a Tel-Aviv armchair revolutionary, but someone who knows Egypt a lot better than Laor and me has told me that "the indigenous Egyptian human rights NGOs and the international HR NGO's have all made in invaluable contribution;" In particular, the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and the Cairo-based Arab Organization of Human Rights, have defended political prisoners and helped create a discourse of human rights that is at the center of the Egyptian revolution. Of course, that revolution is greater than any particular organization.

Indeed, Civil Society, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood or the opposition parties, is the motivating force behind the Egyptian revolution, at least for now. And that bodes ill for repressive governments, including the governments of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. After all, Hamas and the PA tried to suppress protests in favor of the revolutionaries; Israel continues to harass human rights NGOs. It is the civil society movement that is shaking the ground on which authoritarian governments stand.