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Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Civil Society" -- the Shell Game of the New Israel Fund

Ms. Naomi Chazan
President, New Israel Fund

I first ran across "civil society" in this context when I looked into the agitational work of a Mr. Jeff Halper, an American immigrant to Israel who devotes himself to abolishing the Jewish state. He claims to have the support of "international civil society" because people from various countries, including the American Friends Service Committee, support his cause.

Now there is a public controversy surrounding the New Israel Fund, a far less radical group than Mr. Halper's, but one that devotes itself to similar objectives -- less stridently, much less directly, and probably less deliberately. As I have shown in a previous posting, NIF has financed a number of groups that work for the dismantlement of Israel. With all that, NIF claims, repeatedly and insistently, that it represents and supports "civil society" in Israel. That, in its self-description, is its raison d'être.

That sounds grand. But what, exactly, is "civil society ? As it turns out, NIF has a number of answers, each different from the next.

First, here is Daniel Sokatch, NIF's current executive director:

At a time when the organizations that safeguard Israeli civil society are under assault by those for whom openness, equality and pluralism are anathema, the NIF family of organizations has come together like never before to push back, and to stand up for justice. (Sokatch)
And here is NIF's form 990 submission to the IRS:

NIF works with civil society organizations to accomplish social and economic justice.
And here is Adalah, one of NIF's most strident anti-Israel beneficiaries, a group that accuses Israel of "crimes against humanity":

In 8/09, Adalah and Al-Haq held a symposium in Ramallah where research team members presented the findings of the study and discussed potential next steps with around 150 representatives of civil society, political parties, and international organizations who attended the event. (2009 Ann.Rpt.)
The many meanings of "civil society"

So we see that sometimes NIF uses the term as equivalent to democracy itself (example A) while at other times (examples B and C), the term refers to one or another of non-governmental organizations; there is a basic equivocation about this "civil society" in NIF usage.

But even when employed in the more narrow sense -- i.e. non-governmental organization -- there is yet a further ambiguity. If NIF and the groups it finances can be said to be "civil society," what about all the other voluntary groups of Israel ? Dare one mention, say, settler organizations on the West Bank ? No, NIF never mentions groups it does not like as being "civil society;" it seems that only the left-wing and Arab groups that it favors qualify.

In brief, the use of the term "civil society" by NIF is a shell game. When convenient, it means no more than voluntary or non-governmental groups. At other times it means the NIF-financed groups. At still other times, the term means democracy itself. By shifting back and forth, without keeping the spectator informed where the pea is hidden, NIF can deflect any criticism of itself or of one of its beneficiaries (B and C "civil society") as an attack on democracy itself (A "civil society") Such deflection is usually accompanied by a characteristic ultra-left barrage of vilification: McCarthyist ! Fascist ! Reactionary !

The use of "civil society" to characterize the left-wing groups that NIF favors also emboldens NIF to suggest that somehow the society as a whole is behind its cause. Since it's very simple to multiply friendly organizations, if necessary through overlapping memberships, one can seek to create an impression of substantial public support. But this procedure is obviously misleading. No matter how many organizations one claims as supportive, the total numbers of sympathizers can be minuscule. And that, as it happens, is the case here: all the groups trotted out by NIF, all of them together, represent but a very tiny slice of Israeli public opinion. How do I know this ? Well, Israel is a democratic country, and the voice of the people is heard in elections.

Ms. Chazan, NIF President, is a former member of the Knesset as member of the Meretz political party and Meretz, in a sense, remains the political arm of NFI. At one time Meretz commanded a respectable number of votes, but in the last (2009) election it felt constrained to run together with another small party to improve its chances. This combination, New Movement-Meretz, obtained ... guess how much of the vote ? It received all of 2.95% ! So by any meaningful accounting for "civil society" in Israel, 97.05% of it will have nothing to do with Ms. Chazan and her NFI.

Read the important Im Tirtzu report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor report on the NIF

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