The role of non-governmental organizations that claim the mantle of human rights and preach democracy is to criticize and provoke. It’s also good business. In the Arab-Israeli arena, European governments and private foundations provide tens of millions of euros annually to NGOs ostensibly to challenge government policy, increase democratic accountability, and petition courts on matters of public concern.
Yet when others criticize them or their generous and often secretive funding, the commitment of these same “human rights” NGOs to the principles of democracy and transparency in government disappears. When the NGOs are on the receiving end, criticism and challenging corrupting government practice are no longer legitimate expressions of democracy.
Instead, according to one beneficiary of European largesse, debate becomes “McCarthy-like.” Or, in the words of Hagai El-Ad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an “assault on democracy,” as he wrote in Haaretz.
Instead of engaging critics, many members of the powerful NGO network demonize and censor them. El-Ad, whose organization claims to be “independent and non-partisan,” trashes those outside this network as being from a “semi-privatized, arm of the [Israeli] government’s ‘hasbara’ [public relations] conglomerate” pushing “loyalty” to a “specific ideology.” Yet ACRI, which raised more than 3.6 million shekels (almost $1 million) from foreign governments in the first three quarters of 2012, is clearly pushing loyalty to a “specific ideology.”
Michael Sfard also benefits from the NGO industry and European government funding, through his legal work for a number of politicized NGOs. His law firm worked on an EU-funded project of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a tiny fringe group that received a great deal of money. This committee is the same group that tried to invent a new crime against humanity as part of a broader campaign using highly distorted international law for anti-Israel demonization.
Sfard also represents Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO with a European-funded project to portray Israel and its security forces as unaccountable to the rule of law, and to highlight the “severity and the different nature of war crimes.”
One would think that individuals and groups that are highly critical of Israel would support transparency in government funding. And yet, when a European Court of Justice dismissed NGO Monitor’s case against the EU, and upheld the policy of non-transparency, Sfard rushed to defend this anti-democratic practice. He told Haaretz, “All the data about the donations of foreign countries to Israeli human rights organizations are published on the websites of the organizations, as required by law.”
The claim of European funding transparency is clearly wrong, and can easily be refuted, for anyone interested in the facts. NGO Monitor’s detailed reports demonstrate that many Israeli NGOs, much like their European funders, are far from fully transparent. Some do not post data about foreign government funding on their websites; some are five years or more behind in filing the annual financial reports with the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits, as mandated by law.
Why do supposedly liberal, pro-democracy NGOs reject criticism, when criticism is what they claim to do? Why do they hide behind banal slogans that delegitimize other views, to avoid accountability? Why are they so quick to celebrate a defeat for transparency?
First, like other self-interested power brokers, NGOs are afraid to lose their influence and their freedom from accountability. Public exposure of the details of European funding processes used to manipulate Israeli democratic processes could end this expensive charade.
Hidden from any accountability, EU funding secrecy for NGOs hides possible conflicts of interest among the decision makers, and facilitates an industry that has strayed far away from moral values. In the absence of transparency, European NGO funding has been exploited for the anti-Israel Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and other forms of political warfare against Israel (the “Durban strategy”).
A serious debate would also threaten the hegemony that a small group of radical NGOs have over human rights discourse. NGOs, especially in the media-driven environment of the Arab-Israeli conflict, rely on sound bites, slogans, innuendo and emotive arguments. Substantive debate opens them up to being proved wrong or seen as unconvincing. In a multifaceted conflict, it requires acknowledging the need to balance human rights in ways that do not necessarily match the orthodoxies of the NGO community.
In contrast, if Sfard, El-Ad, and the other self-proclaimed “civil society watchdogs” were serious about the values they proclaim, they would join initiatives such as NGO Monitor’s freedom of information request from the EU. They might also welcome the criticism and public debate of government abuses, even when the focus is not condemning Israel.
Naftali Balanson is managing editor at NGO Monitor (www.ngo-monitor.org), a Jerusalem-based research institute.