by Charlie Elkins
On Sunday July 12, 2015, a group of self-proclaimed anti-BDS activists met at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs to discuss how they can combat, what they perceive as unfair, condemnations of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories. The event, entitled Counter Strategies: Combatting BDS in the UN, the European Union, and on the Campus was a discussion on how Israelis can undermine the work of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocates and human rights non-governmental organisation (NGOs). Guest lecturer Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University, Founding President of NGO Monitor, wasted no time setting the tone for the meeting when he accused the BDS movement of engaging in “political warfare against Israel.”
In his presentation, Prof. Steinberg began by tracing the history of the BDS campaign to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban 2001. It was here he argued that the initial idea of applying Apartheid-like sanctions against Israel was agreed upon. Only the U.S. and Israel were absent from the conference as a result of the international community equating Zionism with racism. Consistent with the overall tone of the lecture, Prof. Steinberg labelled the conference’s findings and agreements as “completely engineered.” He argued the agreements reached at the conference were pre-planned at a preparatory conference in Tehran, Iran before 2001. The declaration that Israel should be economically isolated because it is an Apartheid state was the catalyst for the BDS movement according to Steinberg.
Prof. Steinberg, executive director of NGO Monitor. (Image: Israeli National News, 2/19/14)
Steinberg then took aim at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) in Geneva as one of the central hubs of concentrated activity which propels “the demonization of Israel;” the others including Brussels, the home of the European Parliament, and London. Steinberg criticised the council’s Permanent Agenda Item 7 titled The Human Rights Situation in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories, which he argued, allowed the council to permanently persist in undermining the state of Israel, pointing out, “Over half of its resolutions target Israel.” “The daily operations of UNHRC illustrate its war against Israel,” he argued, and the UNHRC is merely a forum for “intense Israel bashing.” Citing a string of enquiry commissions, Steinberg questioned the validity of several of the council’s findings, including the Goldstone and Schabas/Davis reports, arguing that they all follow a similar pattern. Israel is always presumed guilty and it is up to the appointed commissioner to find the evidence which substantiates the already-preconceived-finding.
Under the original auspices of Prof. William Schabas, Steinberg said the goal of the report was “to bring Netanyahu to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.” Steinberg lambasted Schabas for being ill informed and too closely allied with NGO’s which demonize Israel. The fact Prof. Schabas did not state he previously worked as a paid political consultant for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was highlighted by Steinberg as contradicting UN protocol, and thus evidence that his overseeing of the report was illegitimate. This conflict of interest subsequently lead to a UN investigation in which Schabas was forced to resign from the committee to be replaced by American jurist Mary McGown-Davis. In Steinberg’s view, this lead to the report being delayed by a couple of months because it would have been bad PR for the commission to publish its findings shortly after the head of the committee was forced to resign. Steinberg continued his criticism of the whole process of the report’s publication, pointing out that UNHRC reports are normally presented to governments 2 to 3 weeks before being formally presented in the council for administrative and editorial purposes. In the case of the Schabas/Davis, the report was said to be presented less than a week before the actual council session, suggesting it was a “rushed job” according to Steinberg.
United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), described by Prof. Steinberg as a “bubble“ where people “lose track of reality.” (Image: Sachtimes.com, 4/7/15)
The NGO Problem
Steinberg’s major criticism of the UNHRC was its collaboration with the work conducted by NGOs. According to Steinberg, the UNHRC proposes resolutions based on the information gathered and presented by the NGOs. Furthermore, he argued the ideological and political content of NGO research which then feeds into and sustains the BDS movement, also provides the main source of material for the UNHRC’s enquiry reports. Most UNHRC reports he argued are just “cut and paste” jobs of NGO reports. The problem with this for Steinberg is that most of these NGOs deliberately propagate anti-Israel views which are then used for UNHRC reports which, because they emanate from the UN, are perceived as objective and balanced analyses.
Steinberg spoke of an alliance forming in the UNHRC, between its permanent staff, NGO workers and what he referred to as the Islamic bloc. This alliance he said very much has a “revolving door effect,” in that a member of the UNHRC’s permanent staff will have worked previously for an NGO like Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch and vice versa. It is this perceived influence of NGO’s which prompted Steinberg to found NGO Monitor, whose aim is to critically analyse the output of NGOs. He said that the most important task the organization undertakes is to scrutinize how NGOs source their funding from their respective governments with Europe being the most significant contributor. According to Steinberg, most governments in Europe have no idea what their money goes towards and are therefore clueless to the propaganda Steinberg argues these NGOs generate with the aid of government funding. Thus, the aim of the NGO Monitor and the anti-BDS campaign is to limit the influence of NGOs by pressuring governments to reconsider their funding for certain NGOs, by arguing their output is biased propaganda.
A Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) demonstration in Montreal, Canada last year; part of a worldwide protest against the occupation. NGO Monitor and Prof, Steinberg aim to undercut the influence of NGO’s who organize such demonstrations. (Image: Mondoweiss.net, 27/7/14)
The problem with Steinberg’s thesis
Given the theme and content of the event, it was always clear the views proposed were never going to be entirely balanced. For instance, the reasoning and the arguments sustaining the BDS movement were not even in the slightest entertained. Yet the most deeply disturbing aspect of the whole event was that everyone present seemed to subscribe entirely to Steinberg’s narrative that the UNHRC, along with its army of “hatchet men” from organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had an unbridled vendetta against Israel. As if their findings were not based on any evidence or reasoning but purely from a desire to irrationally berate Israel for no other reason than to berate Israel. Is it only me, or does it not seem natural that people who work within and have dedicated their lives to the field of human rights, should work in an international organization devoted to human rights? Prof. Steinberg never really offered any alternatives for who should take those permanent positions instead but more importantly, it is these narratives within Israeli society which are perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to peace.
And what about the very question of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories? Has Prof. Steinberg ever considered the idea that the best way to combat the BDS campaign would be to stop settlement expansion, end the occupation and to enable an independent Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel?