Those of us progressives who blog about the Middle East and identify with our Jewish communities have always struggled with the ambivalent or even hostile reception we face from the “mainstream” (i.e. affiliated) community. And one of the more serious problems I have is with the Jewish press and its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle where the Jewish communities are fairly progressive, their Jewish communal publications sometimes reflect a fairly narrow perspective on the conflict. Yes, they might cover organizations like New Israel Fund, American Friends of Peace Now or Brit Tzedek, but there is often a suspicious or uncharitable aspect to the coverage as if these groups were of dubious Jewish provenance.
I have written critically before here of the querulous coverage that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sometimes provides for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, JTA has done it again; this time in relation to an article announcing that the Ford Foundation plans to provide a $20-million five-year grant to NIF allowing it to dramatically increase the aid it provides to Israeli and Palestinian groups promoting social justice and civil rights: With Ford cash and new head, New Israel Fund switches gear. The very headline itself is dubious. Only NGO Monitor itself says that NIF is reverting back to being a purely “social” rather than “political” group. Aside from the fact that NIF has a new executive director, there is no further evidence to support the contention that it is “switching gear.” This is NOT dispassionate journalism.
I have a major problem with the article’s breathless recounting of charges against NIF grantees by NGO Monitor, a right-wing group whose publisher (according to the Who We Are portion of its site) is Dore Gold, Ariel Sharon’s chief political strategist (this salient item was omitted from the JTA story). Here’s how JTA itself characterizes NGO Monitor: “NGO Monitor is run out of the offices of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a right-leaning think tank that publishes the daily alert for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.” Need we say more about NGO Monitor’s political affiliation?? And to be fair, the JTA story does note that there are those that criticize the NGO Monitor approach. But the story does too little to place its charges within a political context thus doing their readers an intellectual injustice.
Anyway, here’s what NGO Monitor (according to JTA) has to say about NIF grantees who supposedly espouse “extremist” views on the conflict:
NGO Monitor, [which] has criticized NIF in the past, says it has noted a shift away from overt political involvement back to NIF’s core commitment to social justice and change.
“There don’t seem to be new radical organizations being funded,” said Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor’s editor. “Radical political agendas had damaged NIF’s reputation, as becoming political rather than social.”
Five of the 18 groups Peace and Social Justice [a joint Ford-NIF grantmaking project] funded in 2004 are on NGO Monitor’s watch list. A sixth, Rabbis for Human Rights, got NGO Monitor’s heksher recently after it condemned Palestinian terrorism.
Among the organizations are Adalah, a legal rights group; I’lam, which promotes awareness of Arab issues in the media; and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which brings medical services to Palestinians and foreign workers. All these groups, NGO Monitor says, have been guilty of overheated anti-Israel rhetoric in their descriptions of Israeli actions, and of not contextualizing their complaints in the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Those organizations “demonize” Israel, Steinberg said, and Ford pledged not to fund such organizations in the wake of revelations that it had funded organizations that spewed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel venom at the 2001 U.N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
“There’s a political agenda being pursued,” he said.
I invite all my readers to review the websites of these organizations to ferret out their ‘radical’ political agenda. And please let us know of your research results. (I hope all will note the sarcasm in the above statement).
Every one of the “charges” against NIF and its grantees are patently ridiculous. They certainly do not “demonize” Israel. A “radical political agenda” has not “damaged NIF’s reputation” (except in the eyes of people like Ariel Sharon, Dore Gold and Malcolm Hoenlein). In fact, NIF’s funding has grown by leaps and bounds since it’s founding in the early 1980s. Tens of thousands of American Jews and Israelis support its work and no bogus expose by NGO Monitor or JTA is going to change that. Gerald Steinberg poses a false dichotomy by saying that NIF has become a “political rather than social” organization. And what does he mean by “social?” Does he propose that NIF restrict itself to handing out food to the poor and hot meals to the elderly (purely social functions)? Well, NIF to its credit has more a ambitious agenda that Steinberg would propose for it. Of course, NIF funds projects in Israel that have “political” implications. But such grantmaking is no different that what thousands of funders do around the globe including the U.S. What troubles Steinberg is that NIF is doing within Israel something that no other group there is doing and it’s upsetting the applecart of consensus which Likud and the Conference of Presidents would like to pretend exists in Israel.
What is it that invokes the wrath of NGO Monitor regarding these organizations and grants? NGO Monitor fundamentally (and deliberately) misunderstands both the mission of these organizations and the nature of political debate regarding the conflict. I would maintain that NGO Monitor believes that all organizations working in this field need to limit their activities to a purely humanitarian, non-partisan program that does not attempt to examine the nature of the conflict.
In addition, these groups are a threat to the Israeli government because no one else within Israeli society focuses on these issues. No nation likes to have its weaknesses and inherent contradictions exposed for the world to see. And Israel, being a somewhat insular, isolated society generally feels even more strongly about such “meddling.” On the other hand, political debate within Israel is robust and free-wheeling and the NGOs are doing nothing that is alien to Israeli political discourse. My suggestion to NGO Monitor and their political ally, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations: “chill baby.” Israel is a strong enough democracy to withstand such criticisms. Indeed, if such criticisms were taken to heart by Israel, then the nation would be strengthened. Only in places like Putin’s Russia or Belarus are such NGOs demonized and even expelled. No doubt, NGO Monitor might like to see the same fate for these groups. The difference being that NIF is an American Jewish-Israeli project and the other NGOs are indigenously Israeli, so expelling them would be severely criticized by Jews and non-Jews alike outside Israel (and rightly so).