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NGO Monitor Analysis (Vol. 2 No. 2) 4 October 2003

The New Israel Fund Fails to Distinguish between Political Advocacy and Human Rights Advocacy

In the following report, we examine the recent activities of specific NIF-funded NGOs in the Arab-Israeli sector that claim to be active in the areas of human rights, the rule of law, and strengthening democratic institutions in Israel. Since its founding in 1979 as a liberal alternative to the existing official Israel-oriented philanthropies, the NIF has granted over $100 millionto more than 600 organizations. Its mission statement articulates the objectives clearly: to "strengthen Israel's democracy and to promote freedom, justice and equality for all Israel's citizens."

Beneficiaries include NGOs engaged in diverse activities and there is a considerable presence from the Israeli-Arab sector. The most prominent NIF-supported NGOs in this last category include Adalah, Ittijah, Ahali Center for Community Development, Arab Association of Human Rights, and I'lam. All have won prominence by means of their international advocacy branches, some in the EU, some in the UN.

In practice, however, the activities of these NIF-supported NGOs have gone far beyond the scope of their mission statements. On a weekly basis, their reports include misrepresentation of contexts with little regard to the promotion of freedom and justice. The most blatant example is their participation in the ideological NGO Forum of the Durban conference, September 2001. The involvement of these NGOs raised considerable concern in the eyes of many Israeli civil rights supporters. They were instrumental in providing 'evidence', taken up by larger NGOs that included highly politicized charges against Israel amid anti-Semitic comments.

More recent examples of highly political activities include the launching of campaigns in the name of "religious freedom" on behalf of the radical Israeli-Arab leaders, Azmi Bishara and Ahmad Tibi, as well as for members of the Islamic Movement in Israel. The latter group is being held in custody on charges of funding terror yet these NIF-supported NGOs are trying to turn the issue into a case of religious persecution, painted and packaged in a hue of human rights.

In this context, the use of the label, 'human rights', to pursue specific group rights is deliberately misleading. For example, these NGOs generated considerable press attention when the moves to bar Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi from the 2003 elections on the grounds that they supported the destruction of Israel were first voiced, but they were totally silent after the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the earlier decision. The process followed standard legal procedure and was not the result of any external intervention.

Such public relations campaigns have led critics to argue that in these specific cases, the NIF officials responsible for funding allocations have promoted objectives that are totally inconsistent with the stated objectives. Such activities leave little doubt that these NGOs do not exist to "strengthen democratic institutions in Israel" but rather to undermine the State and advance political interests, such as that of radical leaders. These activities go against democratic principles.

In this framework, the support provided by NIF for these political NGOs can be examined through the distinction between group rights and universal human rights. Universal principles of human rights cover fundamental issues such as freedom of speech and movement, equality before the law and the right to vote. Group rights reflect specific interest groups, such as the political agenda of the Arab minority in Israel. While claiming to advance universal principles of human rights, in fact, these NIF-supported NGOs are primarily involved in promoting claims of group rights in the Israeli political context.

The Arab Association of Human Rights and Ittijah for example, are all active in sending delegations to Europe to campaign on issues such as the "Apartheid Fence" in the name of universal human rights. This issue is clearly political and inconsistent with NIF's mission statement. Political advocacy is entirely legitimate, but the claim that such activity is somehow part of universal human rights advocacy is highly misleading and unethical.

In addition, the activities of these NGOs, all partly funded by the NIF, reflects the ease in which general principles of human rights and democracy can be distorted without adequate supervision and accountability.

Furthermore, the political impact of such activities extends far beyond the Israeli political framework. The now familiar and repeated pattern in the international human rights NGO community is that local NGOs, such as0 the ones that NIF funds in Israel, produce reports that are then adopted and proliferated by the major multi-international NGOs that operate with large budgets for public relations campaigns. EMHRN, Amnesty and HRW all repeated and distributed the Bishara and Tibi story as well as the "Apartheid Fence" campaign, and all made political anti-Israel capital out of it. The multi-national NGOs benefit from the use of 'grassroots' reports from the smaller local NGOs. In turn, the smaller NGOs derive legitimacy and valuable media exposure.

The NIF started funding these local NGOs during a period when their operations and budgets were limited in scope, with the stated goal of supporting Arab civil rights and equality within Israeli society, for example improving their share of state budget allocations. Indeed, Adalah, a legal rights NGO, has succeeded in this dimension, through litigation against the Ministry of Religion, demanding increased state funding for Muslim and Christian institutions. The Arab Center for Human Rights also succeeded in promoting educational programs, and Ahali Center for Community Development gained respect for the logistical support it gives to farmers and poorer elements of Arab society in Israel.

Yet, in parallel, the international advocacy arms of these NGOs are undermining their domestic credibility through increasingly strident anti-Israel lobbying campaigns abroad. This is creating a situation in which Israeli society becomes more fractured as Arab groups seek to use international forums and pressures to influence policies, instead of using the democratic procedures of the State of Israel.

Ironically, the NIF first began funding these NGOs to avoid precisely this situation. Perhaps a professional and independent review of the counter-productive agendas supported by NIF would redress this basic failure and restore credibility to the NIF.

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