European-funded Breaking the Silence Alienates Israelis

November 21, 2011 by  
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From November 13-16,  Hebrew University sponsored a conference on “The Potential Role of Transitional Justice in Ongoing Conflict”…write Anne Hertzberg and Naftali Balanson. 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 (Shovrim Shtika or 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 U.S., 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 Israel soldier as evil doer and “war criminal.”

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 emphasised 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 organisation 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.



5 Responses to “European-funded Breaking the Silence Alienates Israelis”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    The BtS participants are shooting themselves, Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora in the foot. The NIF support for them is astounding, and an aberration. How is it thought that the rationale behind BtS and the resultant activities can possibly benefit Israelis or Palestinians, when it speaks out of context? The only way towards hope for a different future is to present both sides of the issue in context, and do so with as much sincerity and honesty as possible, then understanding might be possible. Without understanding we have nothing. All BtS is doing is fuelling the international fire against Jews and Israel, which is a dangerous thing to do indeed. It should not be a question of Israelis and Jews bending over backwards to accommodate politically correct notions that are far removed from truth, or of continually having to defend decisions taken by the Israeli government as response to aggression against its citizens. Rather BtS should confine itself to the few simple, yet hard (simple is always hard), facts of the ongoing situation and reiterate them time and again, until the growing mythology they’re helping perpetuate is exposed and the forgotten truth that makes up the elemental problem takes its rightful place. Then we might start to get somewhere. BtS needs to break the silence on that.

  2. david singer says:

    Thank you for an excellent piece that clearly and succinctly shows how incredibly stupid and naive the New Israel Fund (NIF) is in continuing to give money to Breaking The Silence.

    Surely there are more worthy organizations in Israel that could benefit from NIF funds.

    What justification does NIF have in continuing to fund this organization? Maybe NIF should be breaking the silence by telling us why.

    NIFshould also be breaking its silence to explain why it will fund organizations that call for a discriminatory boycott of goods and services produced by Jews who happen to live in the West Bank.

    There is some very strange thinking guiding NIF policies. Breaking the silence to explain the reasoning behind that thinking would help clarify the aims and objectives of this organization.

  3. Danny Ginges says:

    Great article. I understand the European motive for funding BtS – to allay their guilt about the Holocaust by confirming Jews as monsters – but the NIFs motives are beyond me.

    • Fiona says:

      Thanks Danny – at least now I have some sort of explanation for why the Europeans are so willing to believe every damning lie about Israel, her people and her DEFENCE force.

      What I still find deeply disturbing is the willingness of too many so-called highly educated Israeli’s and Diaspora Jews to accept without question those same damning lies!

      Isn’t it enough that my friends and family in Israel are targetted by the surrounding Arab enemy, without the added threat of further propaganda driven attacks – propaganda by two-faced self-hating self-serving groups who incite as many people as they can to hate and attack their own people – while hiding behind “feel-good” “peace-loving” names, such as NIF, that imply they support Israeli social causes, while in fact contribute to the propagation of suspicion and inuendo within its very own society .

      • Sabra says:

        Surely such NGO’s should simply be closed down! They must surely be illegal as well as unethical & immoral.

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