NGO Monitor Needs a Monitor

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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A few years ago, Bar-Ilan University professor Gerald Steinberg set up NGO Monitor to, in the words of its mission statement, “end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas.”

Steinberg was on to something. NGO Monitor has since exposed the manipulation of some human rights campaigns to malign Israel unjustly and even to undermine its viability as a Jewish state.

The validity of NGO Monitor’s complaints about bias at Human Rights Watch, for instance, received stunning affirmation in the form of an October 19 New York Times op-ed by HRW’s founder, Robert Bernstein, taking his own organization to task for the perverse way in which “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.” In other instances, NGO Monitor has revealed the funding by European governments and reputable American philanthropies of NGOs that smear Israel with lies and classic antisemitic rhetoric.

So far, so good. But NGO Monitor appears to be throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is not sticking to its Web site’s slogan of “promoting critical debate and accountability of human rights NGOs in the Arab Israeli conflict.” Rather, it seems dead set on eliminating human rights monitoring of Israel entirely and smearing anyone who supports this vital activity. In so doing, NGO Monitor is running roughshod over some important organizations that are working to maintain Israel’s integrity in the context of its ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Consider, if you will, NGO Monitor’s “October 2009 Digest,” posted on its Web site. One of the digest’s six items is titled “J Street’s NGO connections.” J Street? Isn’t that the moderate pro-Israel lobby that has received blessings from Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni? Why is NGO Monitor looking at J Street? The item discusses the recent J Street conference. It notes, with appropriate hyperlinks, that J Street has connections with the New Israel Fund and hosted a speaker from B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

I click on NGO Monitor’s B’Tselem link and find that the organization “regularly minimizes Israeli security concerns” and that “its political agenda is evident in the minimal attention it gives to intra-Palestinian human rights abuses.” But Israeli security concerns and Palestinians killing Palestinians are not part of B’Tselem’s mandate. And even if one often disagrees with B’Tselem, as I sometimes do, it’s hard to deny that it is doing valuable work, usually in a credible fashion.

Yet NGO Monitor’s guilt by association doesn’t stop there: We began with J Street, moved to B’Tselem, then we are transported, through another link, to B’Tselem’s sources of funding, one of which is the Ford Foundation. Ford, we are told, “was among the main funders for extremist NGOs involved in the 2001 UN sponsored Durban conference” and is “still funding anti-Israel groups.” By now we are to understand, via insinuation and guilt by association, that J Street, B’Tselem and Ford are all somehow anti-Israel.

Now, for a moment of mandatory transparency: I’m a founding “Israeli supporter” of J Street, having signed on with many other prominent Israelis to a letter welcoming its launch. I also run an NGO that manages, along with a Palestinian partner, Web magazines cultivating Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and other Middle East-related exchanges. My NGO has, in recent years, received donations from the European Union, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute and the Swedish International Development Agency, all of which are regularly attacked by NGO Monitor (though not because they support my projects; nor has my NGO been attacked, presumably because it invites Israeli right-wingers, as well as leftists and centrists, to participate in its dialogues).

A few years ago, I tried in vain to mediate between Steinberg and the Ford Foundation’s then-president, Susan Berresford, pointing out to Steinberg that Ford had abandoned its support of one or two truly bigoted groups, and that his critique of the other Ford-supported NGOs was often based on innuendo and guilt by association. Now Ford, under a new president, is ceasing to fund projects related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Ford official recently told me that one of the reasons for this decision was the attack on its donor policies led by NGO Monitor. Thus does a major, longtime supporter of Middle East conflict-resolution projects depart from the scene.

NGO Monitor and an allied organization, the Institute for Zionist Strategies, recently sponsored a seminar in the Knesset that pushed for closer government regulation of human rights NGOs that monitor the occupation and their international donors. Nothing was mentioned, of course, about those American evangelicals who — often in the name of an antisemitic, end-of-days agenda — support West Bank settlers who violate Palestinian human rights. Or about the American Jewish foundations that financially support the ideological settlers’ agenda. Nor did Steinberg and IZS’s head, Israel Harel, fess up, in the interest of transparency, that when they themselves contribute articles to my Web magazines, they gladly accept payment from monies that were provided by the E.U., Ford Foundation, OSI and SIDA — the very donors they condemn.

It’s okay when the donor money goes to right-wingers.

Yossi Alpher co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.


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