How Breaking the Silence Lost Israel’s Trust
by Aaron Kalman
For two weeks, Israel’s public agenda has been dominated by mudslinging and name calling between two civil society organizations from opposite extremes of the political spectrum: Breaking the Silence and Im Tirtzu. These two groups, which until very recently preached mainly to their own choirs, have found themselves under the spotlight in a nasty, emotion-ridden wrestling match, with everyone watching.
Generally speaking, the media coverage of the two was unflattering, to say the least, with journalists and opinion-shapers criticizing both groups and their tactics.
Why the fuss over two non-governmental organizations (NGOs)?
Breaking the Silence (BtS), which has been controversial for more than 10 years, gained real notoriety following the 2009 Gaza War. BtS — knowingly or unknowingly — questioned Israel’s inherent right to self-defense, and supported efforts to prosecute Israeli officials and soldiers (because allegations published by BtS resonated internationally and were used as ammunition by those siding against Israel). It also emerged at the time that several BtS funders conditioned their donations on obtaining minimum numbers of incriminating “testimonies” against the Israeli army from former soldiers. For instance, a document obtained by NGO Monitor from the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits shows similar demands from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Dutch church-based aid organization ICCO (primarily funded by the Dutch government), and Oxfam Great Britain (funded by the British government).
Israelis quickly recognized that these so-called testimonies were serving a political objective, one that increasingly was seen as helping defame and demonize Israeli soldiers. In the left-wing daily Haaretz, Amos Harel wrote: “Breaking the Silence…has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classified as a ‘human rights organization.’”
Since 2009, BtS’ international orientation, both in terms of funding and activities, has only intensified. By 2015, the group had participated in dozens of events around the world. Global activities included a presentation to the virulently anti-Israel and antisemitic UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, at which the Palestinian deputy representative to the UN asked BtS “to do more speaking engagements, particularly in the United States.”
While Israelis have long been suspicious of, if not disgusted by, Breaking the Silence, the antagonism hit new heights earlier this month with the release of an inflammatory video by the right-wing Im Tirtzu group. In it, BtS and three other political NGOs were labeled “agents” or “moles,” funded by European governments, who helped enable terror against Israeli citizens. The NGO Wars were back, and it wasn’t a pretty scene.
Im Tirtzu’s despicable campaign was widely condemned, but the damage to BtS was undeniable. Even those who oppose the occupation and view BtS and groups like it as vital for Israeli democracy, found it difficult to defend BtS’ international activities. Prominent centrist Yair Lapid said BtS has moved from legitimate criticism to “undermining the foundations of the state.” Isaac Herzog, head of the left-wing Labor party and leader of the opposition, voiced his concern that the NGO’s overseas activity was counterproductive. As Haaretz noted, the one question everyone asked was: “Why abroad?”
Unfortunately for Breaking the Silence, there are no good answers to that question.
Sympathetic audiences have rejected BtS’ slogans and apologetics. One of the most popular satirical news shows, “Gav HaUma” (somewhere between “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show”), devoted 10 minutes to the attacks on BtS, with host Lior Shlein summing up the consensus position:
I don’t think we should call Breaking the Silence “Agents Provocateurs” or “traitors.” They aren’t that. What they are, is unwise. Seriously, Breaking the Silence, instead of working exclusively in Israel with all the means available to you to influence and to fight for purity of arms you are undermining your own objectives. You’re abandoning the Israeli democratic arena — you’re abandoning the political left wing. You take foreign money and present your embarrassing exhibits abroad and are causing millions of Israelis that could have listened to you to fear and distrust you instead.
For Breaking the Silence, the message is clear: its international activities and funding are hindering its ability to affect change in Israel. Funders, too, should realize that their support and invitations for the group to appear in Europe are undermining the very objectives of their funding.
Sooner or later, this flare-up in the NGO wars will subside and Israel will return to the larger issues it faces. The real question is whether the embattled NGOs will act differently from now on. Both sides must take responsibility for their activities and tactics in order to help advance Israeli society.
Aaron Kalman is the foreign media coordinator at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.