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Op-eds

Israeli human-rights organisations losing credibility

  • ShaunSacks
Jessica Montell warned about “eroding Israeli democracy” in a lecture she gave at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies recently (see article in SA Jewish Report 30 August). Montell is the former executive director of nongovernmental organisations B’Tselem and SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation), now at Hamoked: Centre for the Defence of the Individual.
by SHAUN SACKS | Sep 12, 2019

Israel’s national elections are less than a week away, and the issues that Montell holds most dear and campaigns for most vociferously are barely reflected in the rhetoric of the parties and candidates. As expected, Montell lays the blame at the feet of Israel’s government and large swathes of its electorate, accusing voters of failing to recognise how “the occupation … has a corrosive effect on our institutions”. 

She is silent on the role of Israel’s human-rights community in contributing to her very concerns.

Montell and her cohorts have forsaken Israel’s electorate, unable to convince voters to adopt their agenda. Instead, they look to South Africa, Europe, and North America as their primary audience in the hope that they can impose their will on Israel from the outside.

Montell and her fellow NGO activists have ceased to engage in public forums or debates with groups in Israel with which they disagree and try to paint as far-right or apologists for the government.

Throughout the world, civil society and NGOs are meant to represent a broad range of groups and interests that galvanise their populace. As society advances and shifts, they ought to represent the fluctuating concerns of that society. 

Israeli society has progressed over the past two decades, shifting beyond the narrow view of seeing everything through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, the political far-left in Israel and the NGOs that supported its efforts have been relegated to the political fringes.

Simultaneously, these fringe NGOs benefit from a circular system of generous European government funding, ensuring they remain well-financed and disproportionately vocal, in spite of their marginal role within Israeli society. In turn, European governments use these NGOs as means to circumvent regular diplomacy. The rejection of Israel’s populace as a whole, and the massive foreign-government funding has greatly harmed the NGOs’ credibility. It has also led their claim to be working for the noble cause of human rights to be seen as a pretext for political manipulation.

NGOs like B’Tselem and Hamoked annually take in millions in government contracts for “human-rights” work. These groups then report back about the continued deterioration of human rights, consequently asking donor governments for additional funds. In any other field, one might ask whether programmes that by their own admission don’t achieve results should continue to receive funding. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, human-rights NGOs enjoy a halo of infallibility by which they perpetually receive government funds as long they continue to fail.

These practices might appear less egregious were the sums smaller, yet in 2011-2014, while Montell was executive director of B’Tselem, the NGO received more than 18 million shekels (R74.7 million) in European taxpayer funds.

As many South Africans are aware, government bodies should exercise strict standards in order to ensure that businesses, unions, and lobby groups are prevented from receiving government contracts for specific services while simultaneously maintaining government consultancy or advisory roles on the same issues in which they have a vested interest.

Yet Montell, like others in the NGO industry, appears to be exempt from these precautions. During Montell’s tenure as director of B’Tselem, the NGO reported receiving more than 2.5 million shekel from Sweden’s International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). Following her departure from B’Tselem, Montell was tasked with conducting an evaluation of Israeli and Palestinian human-rights organisations on behalf of SIDA. Unsurprisingly, Montell’s conclusions about the contributions of NGOs, as well as the continued benefit of extending government funding to them, were entirely positive.

Montell isn’t alone in benefiting from this feedback loop. Israel-based NGOs have reported receiving hundreds of millions from the European Union and various European governments while simultaneously consulting and providing information to the same governments on the very same issues for which they repeatedly receive the largesse.

There are even worse cases, where donor governments supply NGO budgets to lobby for future funding. South Africans are familiar with the effects of rules meant to safeguard government monies not being stringently upheld, and the peril of not enforcing them.

Despite all this, NGOs like Hamoked and B’Tselem, and activists like Jessica Montell, can be important components of a diverse and vibrant Israeli democracy. Yet, with minimal oversight, massive amounts of foreign government funding, and an assumed moral righteousness, many of these groups have lost sight of the true meaning of human rights.

In other words, the real “corrosive effect” has been the creation of an NGO industry that lobbies for a narrow democracy consisting solely of a one-sided and fringe political agenda.

Shaun Sacks is a senior researcher at NGO Monitor in Jerusalem, which analyses and reports on the output of the international NGO community.

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