Breaking My Silence

This coming week’s Parsha, Shelach deals with the theme of leadership, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.  It’s June, 2015 and I find myself in a position of religious leadership in the Seattle Jewish community.  As Jews, the fate of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel is always at the forefront of our minds. Yet, like the Children of Israel in Perashat Shelach, we, too, can be negatively swayed by our leaders: rabbis, professors, intellectuals to sign on to ideas, philosophies and organizations that, though sometimes well-intentioned, can easily mislead, misinform and demoralize us.

As someone concerned about the direction of our community, I’ve decided… to break my silence!

Some background
Last week, a number of members of the Jewish community were sent an invitation to “a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders, and clergy with Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence and Ben Murane of New Israel Fund”. It was to be held at Herzl Ner-Tamid.

Strangely, this event has now been rescheduled: Instead of being a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders and clergy, it has morphed into a community-wide event. Instead of being hosted by Herzl Ner-Tamid, it’s now at Temple Beth Am.

What Happened?
Others may be better-versed in the details, but suffice to say that there was a strong response within the rank-and-file and lay leadership of Herzl that insisted that the congregation cancel the event.

Those who brought their pressure to bear identified with the conclusions of Matti Friedman, who spoke eloquently at last week’s Thursday night talk at Temple de Hirsch.

During his presentation, Friedman, who identifies as politically liberal, articulated why “Breaking the Silence’s” mission and method falls outside the parameters of accepted “pro-Israel” activism.

His talk summarized the approach he’s taken in the press; referring to BTS’s “report” on last summer’s Gaza War, Friedman writes: “Professional journalists looking at this report, and at similar reports, should be asking (but aren’t, of course): Compared to what? IDF open-fire regulations are lax – compared to what? Civilian casualty rates are high – compared to what? Compared to the U.S. in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province? .. If Israel is being compared to other countries in similar situations, we need to know what the comparison is. Otherwise, beyond the details of individual instances the broad criticism is meaningless.”

Particularly compelling is Friedman’s observation that despite the fact that BTS describes itself as an organization of Israeli veterans trying to expose Israelis to the nature of service in the territories, so that it can have a political impact on Israeli society, “.. it’s a group funded in large part by European money which serves mainly to provide international reporters with the lurid examples of Israeli malfeasance that they crave. They are not speaking to Israelis, but are rather exploiting Israelis’ uniquely talkative and transparent nature in order to defame them….. Any group genuinely fighting for the character of Israeli society should do so in Hebrew, which is the language that Israelis speak — and only in Hebrew. If you’re expending a great deal of energy and money translating your materials into English and speaking to foreign reporters, as we’re seeing Breaking the Silence do right now, I think it’s fair to ask what, exactly, you’re up to.”

Introducing NGO Monitor
NGO Monitor is a Jerusalem-based organization that has as its mission “to generate and distribute critical analysis and reports on the output of the international NGO community for the benefit of government policy makers, journalists, philanthropic organizations and the general public.”  The express goal of NGO Monitor is “to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated agendas.”

NGO Monitor’s International Advisory Board includes, among others: Ambassador Yehuda Avner, Prof. Alan Dershowitz, Col. Richard Kemp, Prof. Elie Wiesel, Dr. Einat Wilf, Prof. Ruth Wisse and R. James Woolsey.

NGO Monitor’s Assessment of The New Israel Fund

This week’s BTS-Temple Beth Am event is sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF).

What does NGO Monitor have to say about the New Israel Fund?

“Founded in 1979, the Mission Statement of the New Israel Fund is to help ‘Israel live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants. Our aim is to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel’

“NIF’s funding guidelines declare that it will not fund organizations that ‘[p]articipate in partisan political activity’; ‘advocate human rights selectively for one group over another’; ‘[e]mploy racist or derogatory language or designations about any group based on their religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation’; or ‘[w]ork[] to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel.'”

Despite the above assertions, the NGO monitor has found that NIF “continues to fund political advocacy NGOs that are active in international and divisive campaigns that contribute to BDS and the demonization and delegitamization of Israel.” (Italics mine)

As an example, notes the NGO Monitor, “a number of NIF-funded NGOs have been active in repeating unsupported allegations of ‘deliberate, systematic, and widespread targeting of Palestinian civilians”; “war crimes and crimes against humanity’; ‘grave violations of international humanitarian law,’ and similar claims regarding the 2014 Gaza war, as well as claiming that internal Israeli investigations fail to meet international standards. Such allegations are central in efforts to justify international intervention, including ICC prosecutions and unprofessional UN reports.”

In light of this week’s BTS event, it is relevant to cite the NGO Monitor observation “that NIF grantee ‘Breaking the Silence‘ makes repeated allegations of ‘war crimes’ and ‘violations of international law.’ Despite claiming to address Israeli society, BtS’ lobbying and media advocacy focus on international audiences, including appearances in Europe and the United States. (Italics mine)

NGO monitor goes on to report that NIF funded NGOs were featured centrally in the discredited Goldstone report, which focused on alleged Israeli “war crimes” in the 2009 Gaza war. The report referenced B’Tselem more than 56 times; Adalah, 38 times; and Breaking the Silence, 27 times.

Tough Questions
The advertisement for this week’s event asserts:

Regardless of one’s own perspectives on the Occupation, we are bound by Jewish values to hear these courageous young soldiers. And we must ask what we’re doing to ourselves when we resist painful topics and respectful discourse.

There is of course a distinction between education and informed discourse, on the one hand – and propaganda on the other.

Matti Friedman writes:
“The activists from Breaking the Silence aren’t journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. It’s propaganda. That’s fine if you understand what you’re reading, but I suspect most people don’t.”

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