From November 13-16, Hebrew University sponsored a conference on “The Potential Role of Transitional Justice in Ongoing Conflict.” Several of the panels addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict and what local groups are doing to promote its resolution. In particular, the panelists highlighted the work of Breaking the Silence (BtS). They concluded that BtS may offer an interesting perspective on the conflict, but ultimately, the impact of its work is questionable.
Although the panelists touched on some of the reasons for BtS’ limited effectiveness, the primary causes were not discussed. Namely, in contrast to the perception that BtS is rooted in Israeli civil society and addresses the Israeli public, the organization, in fact, focuses on lobbying and advocacy before foreign audiences. BtS exemplifies a serious problem, which has triggered a robust debate in the Israeli public and Knesset about the role of NGOs and NGO funders.
Breaking the Silence describes its mission as “expos(ing) the Israeli public to the routine situations of everyday life in the Occupied Territories….pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.” Yet, as NGO Monitor has documented in its report on the frequent international campaigning of Israeli NGOs, BtS conducts a significant amount of its activities outside of Israel.
In the past year, BtS has addressed the Irish Parliament, a crowd in Washington that included the United Arab Emirates UN Ambassador and the First Secretary of Pakistan to the UN, and numerous college campuses in the US, among other similar engagements. At one event in Sweden, BtS activist Yonatan Shapiro even stated, “We are the oppressors, we are the ones that are violating human rights on a daily basis. We are creating the terror against us, basically.”
In May 2011, controversy erupted when another BtS official was scheduled to speak at an event in Ramallah, hosted by a German NGO. The event was subsequently cancelled.
Most recently, on November 20, BtS representative Oded Na’aman spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, at an event sponsored by Penn for Palestine (formerly Students for Justice in Palestine), a pro-boycott, anti-Israel organization. One must question why a group that claims to want to impact Israeli society spends so much time speaking to anti-Israel audiences abroad and reinforcing the image of the Israeli soldier as evil doer and “war criminal.”
Alienating the mainstream
Another significant problem is that BtS is a patron of several European governments. More than 75% of the organization’s 2010 budget – the last available public documents – came from government funding sources, under the pretense of support for human rights and democracy.
However, as repeatedly emphasized by officials from BtS, “the political significance is the only reason for doing it.” Within Israel, BtS’ political agenda is not illegitimate, albeit marginal. But foreign government support for that agenda is absurd.
It is inconceivable that any European country would accept a situation where another democratic government provided funds to an organization whose primary aim was to trash that country’s armed forces before hostile audiences.
It is therefore hard not to wonder if BtS is a genuine expression of Israeli sentiment, or whether its representatives simply serve as the mouthpieces for Europeans. If the goal is “political,” then is this not a subversion and manipulation of Israeli democracy? It is equally disturbing and offensive that European officials appear to be blind and deaf to these issues.
Along with Europe, the New Israel Fund (NIF) also funds BtS. But given the myriad of BtS activities outside Israel, the question must be asked – why did the NIF provided $152,540 to BtS in 2010? If BtS were an Israel-focused group, it might make sense, as NIF “strongly believes that (its) job is to work within Israel to ensure democratic accountability.” But, the reality, as discussed above, is fundamentally different.
Worst of all, the European and NIF donors do not get value for their funding. As NGO Monitor has documented, BtS publications consist of anecdotal, anonymous, and unverifiable accounts of low-level soldiers, often based on hearsay. And a close reading of their “testimonies” shows that misconduct is punished by the Israeli army, undermining one of BtS’ central politicized claims.
Although the scholars at the Hebrew University conference posited that groups such as BtS may foster reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, BtS’ activities are counterproductive. They simply reinforce a narrative where Israelis are solely responsible for the conflict, and Palestinians are blameless victims with no agency or responsibility for the current situation.
More importantly, BtS has managed to alienate mainstream Israeli society, while simultaneously drifting toward foreign audiences. BtS is, therefore, but one example of how Europe’s and NIF’s funding practices make peace even more elusive.
Anne Herzberg is legal advisor of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and to encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East.
Naftali Balanson is managing editor of NGO Monitor.