(March 29, 2016 / JNS)
By Gerald M. Steinberg/JNS.org
For some, the members of the Israeli NGO calling itself Breaking the Silence (BTS) are “whistleblowers” and human rights activists; for others, they are a tiny group of dangerous messianists who tour the world promoting anonymous and false allegations of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) war crimes. The recent exposé on Israel’s Channel 2 showing how they gather sensitive and potentially classified information on IDF tactics and equipment—far removed from any human rights claims—increased the suspicion and hostility with which they are viewed by many Israelis.
This debate is important, particularly when some college students in the U.S. are trying to push the BTS activists into Jewish and pro-Israel frameworks such as Hillel. In response, critics note that although BTS is a fringe group with a handful of activists, unfounded accusations against Israel feed BDS (the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions movement), demonization, and other forms of political warfare. BTS speakers’ allegations seem persuasive simply because they are Israelis, have served in the military, and look the part of righteous whistleblowers.
In these controversies, the details appear to get lost, while vague ideological perceptions take over. BTS supporters—including the CEO of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a BTS core funder—use shut-down techniques, arguing that valid criticism of the group is a “smear campaign.”
The real problem with BTS is the money they have, provided by irresponsible donors, including European governments and the NIF. Together, these funders give over $1 million every year to BTS under the official façade of promoting human rights and international law among Israelis. These donations enable a handful of activists to buy influence completely disproportionate to their size in Israeli society. With this money, BTS holds events in churches, parliaments, and universities, promoting specious allegations of Israeli “war crimes” and other immoral acts. To make their arguments seem reasonable, BTS activists and their supporters systematically strip away the context of Palestinian terror and thousands of rocket attacks, leaving only a highly exaggerated and fictitious version of Israeli responses.
For the European governments, the “kosher certificate” provided by the NIF to BTS is enough to justify much larger grants, which go unsupervised and are renewed year after year. NGOs in general are a big business in Israel, and external funding for the radical political groups is very controversial. Due to its central role, the NIF is seen by many Israelis as a self-selected and externally based alternative government to Israel’s elected leadership, operating outside any of the democratic checks and balances. A small group of NIF officials meeting in total secrecy provide seed money, and help their NGOs file applications and gain access to the European state funders, which then increase the existing budget many times over.
For a significant part of the Israeli public, the powerful but undemocratic power of fringe groups like BTS, and the damage that they do in helping to demonize the Jewish state, has reached the boiling point. Responding to the unparalleled sums of money involved, and the secrecy that envelops European funding processes for Israeli political NGOs, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked advanced legislation aimed at making these donations more transparent. (It is important to note this law would not affect private donors like the NIF, which are inherently different than governments that infringe on Israel’s sovereignty.)
Whether or not the proposed Israeli legislation is passed, or instead, European governments negotiate guidelines with the government, this will not end the debate on American college campuses. In these cases, one option would be to demand that all such appearances and events with BTS and similar groups include an Israeli who served in the IDF and can present a very different picture. If necessary, the sponsoring organization will have to pay for the costs of ensuring a fair discussion. In that way, BTS will not be given the privileged position it currently enjoys, based on its $1 million budget, and instead of propaganda, college campus and other audiences will be able to hear different perspectives and decide for themselves.
Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and the president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.