Benjamin Joffe-Walt
The Media Line (Analysis)
February 3, 2010 - 1:00am

It all began with enough reports to fill the average Ph.D. candidate's reading list for weeks.

In the months following the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, governments, civil society groups and human rights organizations issued dozens of reports, some of them well over 100 pages long, on the legality, operation and effects of the war.

Some of the reports accused Israel of war crimes, some accused Israeli soldiers of mistreating prisoners of war, some explored the damage caused to Gaza's infrastructure during the war. Most, it's fair to say, were in some way or another scathing indictments of the behavior of the Israeli army.

As the reports piled up, the Israeli government went on offense, contacting European governments to protest their funding of international human rights organizations critical of Israeli actions during the Gaza war, questioning the methodology used by rights organizations in researching the Gaza war and accusing one group of using its criticism of Israeli conduct to solicit funding in the Arab world. Israel threatened to ban foreign funding of Israeli organizations involved in activity deemed political and added to the report pile with its own 164 pager responding to the claims of various rights groups.

But the Israeli government's efforts to stop the tidal wave of international criticism failed, culminating in the publication of South African Judge Richard Goldstone's 575 page whopper on the Gaza war to the United Nations Human Rights Council, in which Israel was officially accused of war crimes by an international legal entity.

While the Israeli government has gone to great lengths in the months since the publication of the Goldstone report to respond to its content, for some in Israel the damage to the country's image was already done.

Israeli politicians began blaming one another for allowing such a public diplomacy train wreck to take place while others turned to the various Israeli organizations that helped Goldstone, accusing them of using human rights discourse to malign and weaken their own country.

Organizations like UN Watch and NGO Monitor, which monitors Israeli civil society organizations, entered mainstream Israeli political discussion and their leaders began appearing throughout Israeli media.

Israel's numerous human rights advocacy and research groups soon hit back, accusing such groups attempting to suppress democratic rights by equating criticism with treason.

The quarrel came to a head last week with the publication of an advertisement in Israel's leading newspapers accusing Israeli organizations of being the principal suppliers of the critical testimonies contained in the Goldstone report.

"Without the New Israel Fund, there would be no Goldstone Report, and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes," read the advertisement, making reference to a an Israeli philanthropic organization that funds a number of Israeli rights and progressive social change organizations.

The advertisement, put out by Im Tirzu, a right wing student group calling for a "Second Zionist Revolution", depicted the New Israel Fund's President Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, with a horn on her head and accused the New Israel Fund of being behind "90% of the Goldstone war crimes allegations from non-official Israeli sources" and of giving $8 million "to 16 anti-Zionist Israeli organizations that volunteered to provide Goldstone incriminating "information" on the [Israeli army's] "war crimes."

"We have a big problem," Ronen Shoval, Im Tirzu's chairman told The Media Line. "There are many anti Zionist groups that advocate against Israel from within Israel."

"These are not human rights organizations, they are pseudo human rights organizations using the terminology of human rights to create a blood libel upon Israeli soldiers who are defending them," said Shoval, who fought for Israel in the Gaza war. "Was I sent to Gaza in order to defend these organizations' ability to delegitimize the State of Israel?"

"Wars in the Middle East today are not fought on the battlefield and the question is no longer just who has the strongest army," he said. "The battles are fought in public opinion."

"Goldstone delegitimized the right of Israel to defend itself," Shoval continued. "In this context we started looking into who was behind the Goldstone report. We found out that out of the Israeli sources in the report, 92% of those who accused Israel of war crimes were organizations that get funds from the New Israel Fund. Yet people think they are donating to poor people in Israel. We will show the public the real side of the New Israel Fund."

The advertisement led overseas Jewish groups to cancel appearances by Chazan and a barrage of criticism of the New Israel Fund and various Israeli rights organizations it supports in Israeli media.

"Most of the groups supported by the Fund deal in the delegitimization of Israel," wrote Ben-Dror Yemini, opinion editor of the influential Israeli daily Ma'ariv. "There is something wrong with those who collaborate with dark forces and try to sell the lie that it is all about 'human rights'... These groups, including the New Israel Fund, are the major enemy, not only of Israel but of the free world and human rights."

The New Israel Fund has accused Im Tirzu of disseminating lies about the organizations it funds and threatened to sue Im Tirzu and the newspapers that published the advertisements for libel.

“The representation of the New Israel Fund and its director, Professor Naomi Chazan, as enemies of the state and as people who perceive Israel Defense Forces soldiers as criminals has no factual basis and is of unsurpassable gravity,” read a New Israel Fund letter threatening legal action.

Mikhael Manekin, Director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group of dissident army veterans, argued that the Im Tirzu advertisement marked a new stage in the political feud over Israeli rights groups.

"Foreign Minister [Avigdor] Lieberman's attack on Israeli civil society organizations was a bit different than what's happening now," he told The Media Line. "First it was coming from government and he was attacking specific forms of foreign funding. While I forcefully disagree with Lieberman, at least he has a coherent case."

"Now, Im Tirzu is just angry with a long list of organizations because of their opinions, equating any organization that doesn't adhere to the government's cause or direction as traitorous," Manekin said. "That's fascism plain and simple."

"Regarding the specific accusations, Israeli generals aren't being accused of war crimes by the United Nations because people are talking about it or because of civil society organizations, they are being accused of war crimes because they allegedly committed war crimes," he said. "To place the blame for that on the whistle blowers is very problematic."

Nirit Moscovitz, a spokesperson with The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the organizations supported by the New Israel Fund and which contributed testimony to the Goldstone report, argued the attacks on Israeli rights groups was part of a larger effort to refute criticisms launched against the Israeli government.
"Instead of responding directly to the claims of human rights abuses, these organizations and politicians are essentially using the defamation of human and social rights organizations as a means of deflecting criticism of Israel in the Goldstone report," she told The Media Line. "This is a joint attack implemented by both senior politicians as well as fragments in civil society such as NGO Monitor, Im Tirzu. First these organizations publish ads full of lies about Israeli human rights organizations funded by the New Israel Fund, then suddenly a Knesset member says they are going to discuss it in the Knesset security committee."

Chazan's former political party Meretz described the Im Tirzu campaign as "ugly" and "hateful" and "a further stage towards limiting public discourse."

"It warns of the McCarthyist slope on which we find ourselves," read a statement from the Meretz executive. "These are civil society organizations that stand at the forefront of the struggle for Israel's democratic image and civic character."
Even J Street, a U.S. based left of center Israel advocacy group self described as a lobby, described the advertisements as "an outrageous campaign" launched "in a style reminiscent of propaganda from the darkest days of recent Jewish experience."

"Im Tirzu’s political leanings are clear," wrote J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami in a statement. "This is a pro-settler group, with $100,000 of funding from Christians United For Israel, a conservative Christian Zionist organization run by Pastor John Hagee, who once stated that God sent Hitler to drive Jews to Israel. Funds collected for Im Tirzu in the United States are directed through a New York City-based charity which funds construction over the Green Line."

But an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, praised groups critical of the Israeli organizations that contributed to the Goldstone report.

"It's important to expose these organizations' resources and interests," he told The Media Line. "People don't know the truth, and we are facing legal terrorism against Israel: an orchestrated, organized campaign by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and organizations all over the world using the same language and quoting each other."

While praising groups like Im Tirzu, NGO Monitor and UN Watch, the official denied there was any formal coordination with the government.

"They are independent and they also criticize us sometimes, so coordination is the wrong word, but there is communication and there is sometimes exchange of information."

Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel's National Security Council and former deputy Chief of Staff in the Israeli army, argued that while Israeli government bodies would like to restrict certain Israeli organizations, they are restrained by the damage such action would do to the country's image.

"It's much harder and complicated for the Israeli government to launch a direct criticism of a civil society organization," he told The Media Line. "Israel is always worried about how these kinds of things look, so this is an initiative of young people who don't have to be overly politically correct."

But Dr Elisha Haas, a biophysicist and the current chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel, argued that the government should take a more aggressive role in monitoring civil society organizations.

"Israel is a state that is engaged in an active existential war," he told The Media Line. "There are many fronts in this war and one of them is public opinion. These organizations are continuously mobilizing public opinion against Israel and are the source of the information found in the Goldstone report, so it's very sad that the government waited for students to expose this reality when they have known it for months."

Dr Haas rejected the claim that attempts to curb the funding or activities of Israeli rights organizations are undemocratic.

"The problem is not human rights, there should be human rights organizations," he said. "The problem is that human rights language is being used as the cover for a political agenda to weaken Israel."

"Any country that is stable can tolerate organizations that undermine the state," said Dr Haas. "But there is only one state in the whole world that can disappear and that is Israel. So while it may not be convenient to recognize it, we cannot play the same game that everyone else is playing and have to be much more careful about allowing such organizations to undermine the existence of Israel."

Barak Cohen, Director of Communications at The Israel Democracy Institute, argued that well-hidden under this public spat is a small glimpse of the vibrancy of public discourse in Israel.

"It's an interesting development," he told The Media Line. "Clearly Israelis have not lost their passion for political activism."

"Nonetheless there are many more constructive, less damaging ways to mediate disagreements between family members than airing them on the international stage," Cohen said. "Israelis – individuals and organizations alike - care deeply for their preferred ‘national course’. Underlying this conflict are fundamentally different visions of what the State of Israel should look like. These differences are both a source of tension, as well as an inseparable part of the State’s democratic fabric."

"It seems to me that this type of sparring could take place around divisive issues in any country," he added. "At the same time, Israelis and Jews worldwide tend towards high levels of emotion and even feelings of personal responsibility when it comes to the State and its policies."


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