NGO Monitor: attacking New Israel Fund, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International

By Rob Lipton with Cecilie Surasky
Although using language that would appear to give the impression of a neutral watch dog of non-governmental human rights organizations (NGOs), NGO Monitor (NGOM) is a partisan organization that weakens universal human rights infrastructure by charging many of the world’s best known human rights organizations with bias against Israel.

Their mission statement says they were founded to:

promote accountability, and advance a vigorous discussion on the reports and activities of humanitarian NGOs in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

However, a more straightforward description of their ideological bias comes from liberal Jewish thinker Leonard Fein who says:

…. NGO Monitor, an organization that believes that the best way to defend Israel is to condemn anyone who criticizes it.

NGO Monitor operates out of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Institute for Contemporary Affairs. Its editor is Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who wrote not just about NGOs, but also journalists and academics in 2003:

…Israel-bashing is promoted by that other axis of evil – journalists, diplomats (including the United Nations), academics and self-proclaimed universal human rights groups. These non-governmental organizations (NGOs) enjoy a halo effect, and an image of promoting noble causes without political bias exempts them from scrutiny. They are also extremely influential, and their reports are quoted extensively. In reality, however, these NGOs are at the very core of the anti-Israel axis of evil. By promoting the campaign of hatred and delegitimization, such groups are morally guilty of justifying terrorism.

This world-view is behind the single-minded commitment to weakening some of the world’s most respected human rights and civil society groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund.

As any superficial or substantive look at AI and HRW shows, they offer equal opportunity criticisms of human rights violations across the world, yet NGO Monitor views them as players in a nefarious plot to delegitimize Israel. Israeli human rights groups, instead of central players in the fight for a just country for all of its citizens, are seen as a kind of fifth column.

In Monitoring the Monitor, in 2005, Leonard Fein decided to “monitor” just one NGOM report on Human Rights Watch, one of NGOM’s favorite targets. The results of his efforts are telling:

On April 18, NGO Monitor issued a “draft report on Human Rights Watch” which claims that an “objective quantitative analysis” shows that Human Rights Watch places an “extreme emphasis on critical assessments of Israel.” I have reviewed the draft document and checked its central claim against the actual documents Human Rights Watch has produced regarding Israel since the year 2000. The discrepancy between NGO Monitor’s claims and Human Rights Watch’s record is massive.

Human Rights Watch has in fact devoted more attention to each of five other nations in the region — Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, Turkey and Iran — than to Israel. I called this to Steinberg’s attention on May 3, and he responded that NGO Monitor would “examine and respond” to the discrepancies. Since then, I have received 27 emails from Steinberg; not one has in any way responded to this matter. Yet the draft report remains online, unamended.

The New Israel Fund
NGO Monitor’s ongoing campaign against the New Israel Fund (NIF) is especially puzzling. NIF promotes civil democratic society in Israel. Their work extends to all races, creeds, nationalities and classes.

For many diaspora Jews committed to seeing Israel live up to its promise of being a just and ethical Jewish democratic state for all of its citizens, NIF is not just a hero but a godsend. They’ve given well over 100 million dollars over the years to support a vital civil society. Just like the US, where countless NGOs keep the government accountable, civil society groups are especially needed in the young country of Israel. They work not only in the occupied territories, but within the green line to ensure that the rights of non-Jews (some 20% of Israel’s population), Ethiopian Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, gays and lesbians, women and more are respected.

But NGOM says of the New Israel Fund (NIF):

“NIF’s long- standing support for human rights, institution-building, humanitarian aid and peace ..is a “facade.”

This claim is on the basis of statements made by some of the groups receiving NIF money that are not in complete accord with what NGOM considers the proper party line on all things Israel.

A human rights NIF grantee NGOM objects to is Machsom Watch. This Israeli women’s group monitors IDF and border police activity at checkpoints in the occupied territories:

“Machsom Watch was founded in January 2001 in response to repeated reports in the press about human rights abuses of Palestinians crossing army and border police checkpoints. The excessive Israeli response to the El Aksa Intifada, the prolonged closure and siege of villages and towns on the West Bank provided the stimulus and the motivation for what at first seemed an impossible mission.”

Machsom Watch has been involved in some controversial activities that cast the Israeli military and border police in a harsh light. In one such incident, Machsom Watch videotaped a Palestinian being made to play the violin while they reported that IDF troops looked on and laughed, a claim denied by the IDF . NGOM thinks that Machsom Watch is biased against the Israeli government’s check point policies, which is obvious as is the bias of NGOM. And many would see Machsom Watch actions as attempting to bring humanity to an extremely inhumane situation:a system of checkpoints that denies Palestinians within the territories access to everything from dignity to family members, education, urgent medical care and more. That NIF funds Machsom Watch is completely in line with their mission of promoting civil society.

Similarly, NGOM criticizes NIF support of Mossawa,

a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group that promotes equality for Arab/Palestinians within the borders of Israel. Indeed, NGOM takes NIF to task for support of a variety of Palestinian- Israeli groups, see a selection here claiming typically that such groups are anti-Israel because they, for the most part, are critical of the Jewish-Israeli establishment. You, the reader, be the judge of how such groups can be considered “pro” or “anti” Israel. From a muzzlewatch perspective, any efforts that help promote equality and freedom of expression can only be for the good.

Larry Garber, executive director of the NIF, wrote in response to one such NGOM attack:

Sir, – Gerald Steinberg and his NGO Monitor never miss an opportunity to lambaste the New Israel Fund. In “Terror and the divestment campaign” (July 17) Mr. Steinberg claims that NIF grantees support divestment. Of the 170 organizations mentioned not one receives direct support from NIF, and just one is a donor- advised grantee. While NIF does not share the Arab Association for Human Rights’ (Nazareth-HRA) view regarding divestment, we do believe that the organization represents an important and responsible voice for the human rights of the Arab minority in Israel.

The NGO Monitor’s implicit premise is that any criticism of Israel, particularly regarding its treatment of the Arab minority, invalidates the critic’s legitimacy. This is clear from the blanket declaration that NIF’s long- standing support for human rights, institution-building, humanitarian aid and peace are a “facade.” Since Israel was founded as a democracy embodying Jewish values, we reject the Monitor’s premise and will continue to act on behalf of the long-term interest of Israeli democracy and civil society. This support includes organizations such as the Ayala Center, which is based at Bar-Ilan University, Mr. Steinberg’s home base, and which promotes constructive contacts between the Israeli religious community and Palestinians.

Israelis and Diaspora Jews need to work together to lower the rhetorical temperature and find ways to communicate on key issues.

From another letter:

Mr. Steinberg’s NGO Monitor organization spends its time and resources criticizing NGOs that criticize Israel. We politely suggest, and enthusiastically invite him, to join with us instead on the many, many issues upon which we are in agreement. Just like Mr. Steinberg, we are not cultural relativists, and we firmly believe that there are no special exceptions for the Israeli government as a democratically-elected and accountable group of politicians. Both Israelis and Diaspora Jews must support the goal of an ethical and just Israel – the Israel we all know to be possible.

Further, because a NIF grantee Israeli human rights lawyer Shamai Leibowitz was critical of the present government of Israel and called for selective divestment, NGOM claimed that NIF was funding anti Israel causes. Of course, there are many within and outside of Israel who might agree with Leibowitz’s writings and think that Leibowitz is acting in the best interest of Israeli citizens,

In 2005, from The Jewish Week:

Jerusalem — A provocative article written by a current New Israel Fund Law Fellow that calls for American civic organizations to support “selective sanctions” against Israel has upset some of the organization’s donors, prompting the group to re-evaluate its admissions process and grant criteria, The Jewish Week has learned.

The article, by Shamai Leibowitz, a Tel Aviv lawyer known in left-wing Israeli circles for his outspoken support of financial sanctions against Israel and his disdain for “the Israeli occupation,” appeared in the March 15 on-line edition of The Nation magazine.

Leibowitz, a reserve tank gunner in the Israel Defense Forces whose studies toward a master’s of law degree at American University’s Washington College of Law are being financed by the NIF, asserted in a commentary titled “Israel: A Call for Divestment” that “for decades the Israeli army, equipped with U.S. arms and technology, has killed, maimed, beaten and tortured tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians.”

The lawyer accused American taxpayers of sponsoring Israeli “colonialization” and “torture chambers,” and he urged them “to prevent the sale of any military equipment to Israel.”

Leibowitz wrote: “The first step for American institutions is to engage in selective divestment — withdrawal of their investments from companies that are, directly or indirectly, funding the occupation.” He praised the World Council of Churches for spearheading such a campaign. “If American civic institutions follow the same strategy, we could see the end of the Israeli occupation in our lifetime,” Leibowitz wrote. “Americans should stand up for human rights and justice, follow their own law, and take the most productive step toward peace and security in the Middle East.”

The NIF, feeling the heat from some of its sponsors for such a relatively controversial stand by Leibowitz did attempt to distance itself, which was not a brave move, but a fairly typical response from mid-level professionals when threatened with a loss of funding. In fact, succumbing to pressure, they threatened Liebowitz, (who later changed his thinking), with the loss of his fellowship because of the essay.

Certainly there are many hot button issues that Leibowitz pressed and no doubt, NIF has to function in a context whereby certain orthodoxies/shibboleths are useful. We can only hope for a time in which everything Israeli/Palestinian does not immediately reduce to a discussion of existential threats and responses to such threats.

That Leibowitz’s position might be opposed to that of NGOM is without controversy, but its far from clear that such a position is inimical to Israeli interests, NIF interests or to a just peace in the region.

There are many Israelis who believe that 40 years of a destructive and self-destructive occupation are more than enough, and that pressure must be brought to bear on a country, or countries, given US support, that seem unwilling to withdraw on their own.

This all begs the question, what constitutes being a friend to Israel? What does it mean that some interpret being a friend to Israel as generally opposing freedom and human dignity across international borders.

NGOM has its own agenda and one assumes that those who support and run the organization genuinely believe in what they are doing, but their point of view is just that, it is not objective fact.

While NGOM sets itself up as the “objective” watcher of NGOs, its ideological focus on criticizing Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations that criticize Israel, reveal a more sinister impact: guarding shameful human rights violations from the forces of democracy and human dignity.