Freedom of Expression, UN Human Rights Council
Part 1: Overview and Background:
1) By any objective standard, Israeli democracy is as robust and pluralistic as any in the world. There are no restrictions on any form of protest or advocacy, including very fierce and unpopular criticism of the government and military. No other democracy can claim to have greater freedom of expression, despite more than six decades of war and terrorism; threats of annihilation; and in parallel, the challenges of developing a cohesive society based on numerous divergent communities scattered for generations as Diasporas, many of which do not have traditions of pluralism and democracy.
2) Like other Israelis, I am aware that we are not a perfect society. As in others nations, we have flaws, and it is our responsibility to correct them. But aggressive campaigns to greatly exaggerate these imperfections, as part of the ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel facilitated by the soft-power of groups not subject to any democratic accountability, should not be assisted by a United Nations framework focusing on freedom of expression and freedom.
3) Israel systematically protects the rights of its minority populations to freedom of expression and to protest. For example, each year, Israeli police forces and government institutions facilitate Gay Pride parades in Jerusalem Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat; marches on Human Rights Day; protests by the Islamic movement; and to mark the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
4) Mass demonstrations on socio-economic issues were held in Summer 2011, and attest to Israel's dynamic civil society and a culture of advocacy and peaceable protest. Israeli police facilitated these activities, blocking off roads and granting permits. The government responded to protestors' demands positively, in the form of a task force to address their claims.
5) During the "Arab Spring," where thousands were murdered at the hands of their own governments, protestors in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere were quoted as taking inspiration from the peaceful social protests that took place during the summer in Israel. This highlights the Israeli commitment to free expression.
6) In contrast, the history of reporting by UN frameworks on human rights in Israel has been characterized by biased mandates, false and unverifiable allegations, double standards, and hypocrisy – from Jenin (2002) through Goldstone (2009), as well as reports by special rapporteurs Jean Ziegler, John Dugard, and Richard Falk. The results have been highly counterproductive in promoting human rights. I am here today to engage with the Special Rapporteur, and to contribute to an accurate report that will not repeat the flaws and negative impacts of previous UNHRC reports related to Israel.
7) The geopolitical context resulting from over six decades of conflict and violence, including the results of the 1967 war – particularly the Israeli control of disputed territories that had been occupied in 1948 by Jordan (the West Bank), and by Egypt (Gaza) and the ongoing political stalemate, presents a unique and highly complex situation. In this context, allegations of human rights violations are part of political or soft-power warfare that accompanies the hard-power attacks and violence. Such accusations should not be accepted at face value, and must be tested against credible evidence that is independently verifiable.
8) Therefore, NGO Monitor urges the Special Rapporteur to subject accusations from organizations and individuals regarding the state of freedom of expression in Israel to careful scrutiny and independent verification, and to avoid erasing the context of these allegations.
Part 2: Israeli Civil Society, Democracy and Freedom of Expression
1) Israel has a vibrant civil society: a free and highly critical press, and an NGO sector with tens of thousands of groups across the political, social, and ideological spectrum engaging in often intense debate.
2) The Israeli public, media, government and Knesset (legislature) are conducting an intense debate on the massive and unique level of foreign government funding for highly political non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
3) This debate includes questions on and criticism of the unfair advantage gained by a very narrow group of political advocacy civil society organizations that receive massive and often secret funding from foreign (mainly European) governments. Major concerns exist regarding the lack of accountability for these organizations, their "democratic deficit," non-transparent funding processes, and impact of these resources. This political manipulation and lack of transparency is unique in the case of European government funding for a narrow group of Israeli NGOs, and constitutes a blatant violation of democratic norms.
4) In and of themselves, the fierce public debate and numerous failed legislative proposals affirm the strength of Israeli democracy.
5) A concerted political campaign by a narrow group of powerful NGOs uses slogans claiming "anti-democratic behavior" to intimidate critics. This campaign, including the denunciation of the very discussion of preliminary legislative proposals as entirely illegitimate, seeks to prevent this political debate. Partisan allegations from NGOs should not be taken at face value; in a democracy, groups claiming to speak in the name of human rights have no immunity from criticism and public debate.
6) Criticism of both the false claims of "war crimes" and of the secretive processes by which they receive large European government funding does not prevent members of Israeli NGOs such as Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), and many others from promoting their agendas. There is no threat to freedom of expression in this criticism of NGOs.
7) In contrast, attention should be paid to the close relationships between some influential journalists, such as Akiva Eldar (Ha'aretz) and these political advocacy NGOs. This relationship may provide unfair access of these groups of NGOs to the media, in contrast to other groups that do not have similar access.
8) Issues of politicization, credibility, and faulty methodology in NGO publications on human rights are particularly acute in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Additionally, some NGOs have falsely claimed to be "human rights organizations," granting them an aura of objectivity and credibility ("the halo effect").
Part 3: Criticism of NGO Political Campaigns as Central to the Democratic Process
1) NGO Monitor was formed and began researching these issues after the participants in the NGO Forum of the 2001 UN Durban Conference adopted a plan of action to exploit false claims of war crimes, apartheid, and human rights violations to advance the "total international isolation of Israel," through the use of boycotts, legal frameworks, and other forms of political warfare.
2) The evidence of NGO inaccuracy, bias, and unbalanced influence in the Israeli political discourse increased significantly in the wake of the UNHRC's report on the Gaza conflict (Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict – the "Goldstone Report"), published in September 2009. Much of the content of the allegations was provided by political advocacy NGOs (while ignoring the thousands of rocket attacks from Gaza – every one a war crime). When the principal author of the report, Judge Richard Goldstone, acknowledged that the allegations were baseless, the focus on NGO biases and inaccuracy increased. This criticism included a recognition of the role of foreign government funding for these NGOs in greatly amplifying their influence, while NGOs that did not enjoy such funding were at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas.
3) As a result of these campaigns, in 2010 and 2011 members of the democratically elected Israeli Knesset introduced legislation designed to address the impact of the non-transparent, large-scale foreign government funding for these organizations. This political manipulation and lack of transparency is unique in the case of funding for Israeli NGOs, and violates democratic norms. Some of this proposed legislation was based on practices in other countries, such as the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act and prohibitions on discriminatory business practices (regarding anti-boycott legislation).
4) The NGOs that are recipients of this foreign government money and their supporters began a political campaign seeking to prevent this debate, charging that any criticism is inherently "undemocratic," "McCarthyite," etc. Statements by officials from Israeli political advocacy NGOs (the New Israel Fund, B'Tselem, and ACRI) quoted in U.S. government cables (published in Wikileaks) revealed their cynical manipulation of democratic processes and structures.
5) Media reports on these issues, both in Israel and outside, are often distorted and confused, including quotes and analysis based on inaccurate translations. Many of these reports fail to address basic issues related to the unique context of NGO political power in Israel, the secret foreign government funding processes, and the substance of the proposed Knesset legislation.
6) Only one law dealing with NGOs has been passed, mandating funding transparency. All of the other proposals, often condemned by the NGOs and their supporters as "anti-democratic," have either been withdrawn, defeated, or amended. Within the governing coalition, a number of MKs and ministers have also actively opposed the bills. Thus, in contrast to the self-interested claims of NGOs seeking to protect their secret foreign government funding, all the available evidence demonstrates the vibrancy and strength of Israeli democracy. (The law creating a civil right of action for economic damages caused by discriminatory boycotts does not directly address NGOs. In contrast to false NGO claims, the law does not criminalize anti-Israel boycotts.)
Part 4: Criticism of Government Policies, Minority Rights, and Freedom of Expression
1) Allegations to the contrary not withstanding, there is no censorship of Israeli civil society activities. Critical reports of the government issued by NGOs such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), B'Tselem, Yesh Din, Adalah, Mossawa, and many others receive extensive press attention in Israel, including from the government-owned media. When ACRI recently released a publication criticizing alleged harassment of demonstrators, the document was widely disseminated and served as the topic in an op-ed in Haaretz, one of Israel's most influential papers. This type of public debate and intense criticism of government policies would not be possible in a country without free expression.
2) Regarding the Arab minority population, while discrimination is an issue, this is often confused with impact of security requirements to protect against violence and terrorism. The facts clearly show that there are no restrictions on freedom of expression or opinion beyond those often found in other democratic societies, which do not have such ongoing conflicts. In fact, to the extent that Israel has placed any restrictions, they do not rise to the level of those imposed by democratic countries such as France, Switzerland, the UK, etc. Arab representatives in the Knesset frequently deny the legitimacy and advocate the destruction of Israel as the home of Jewish nation, for which they are strongly criticized as part of the political debate.
3) Arab-sector NGO officials and MKs have participated in activities such as the so-called "Free Gaza flotilla" (2010), which deliberately provoked a violent confrontation with Israeli security forces enforcing a blockade necessary to prevent deadly weapons from reaching Hamas and other terror groups. MK Haneen Zoabi was aboard the Mavi Marmara, a boat operated by the Turkish group IHH (which is a member of the Union of Good, a U.S.-banned terror organization), from which Israeli soldiers were attacked when they attempted to board. In most cases, participation in an armed attack against one's own military forces would be considered treason, but no such charges were made against MK Zoabi. Although a Knesset committee recommended that her parliamentary immunity be revoked, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin declined to submit this to the full Knesset. Instead, on July 13, 2010, she was stripped of three parliamentary privileges. Nevertheless, Zoabi continues to freely travel around the world advocating against the State of Israel, leveling charges of "apartheid" and "war crimes." In a regime that restricted free speech, Zoabi would not be able to conduct these campaigns.
4) In January 2010, MK Tal a-Sana addressed a rally of Hamas officials and 100 members of the Free-Gaza Movement chanting, "Katyshuas on Ma'alot, Qassams on Sderot." In April of that year, a-Sana, Zoabi, and several other MKs met with Moammar Qaddafi in Libya – a country officially at war with Israel. In most other countries of the world, including many democratic states, the activities of Zoabi and a-Sana would have resulted in criminal prosecution, forced removal from the legislature, or even imprisonment.
Conclusion: We urge the Special Rapporteur to avoid repeating the practice of applying double standards and using false claims in order to condemn Israel, and to subject accusations from organizations and individuals regarding the state of freedom of expression in Israel to careful scrutiny and independent verification.
 Gerald M. Steinberg, "The Politics of NGOs, Human Rights and the Arab-Israel Conflict." Israel Studies 16.2 (Summer 2011): 24-54; Robert Charles Blitt, "Who Will Watch the Watchdogs? Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations and the Case for Regulation," Buffalo Human Rights Law Review 10 (2004): 261-398; Ben-Dror Yemini, "NGOs vs. Israel," Middle East Quarterly XVIII.2 (Spring 2011): 67-71; Don A. Habibi, "Human Rights and Politicized Human Rights: A Utilitarian Critique," Journal of Human Rights 6.1 (2007): 3-35.
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