The Centrality of Ngos in Promoting Anti-Israel Boycotts and Sanctions

By Steinberg, Gerald | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Centrality of Ngos in Promoting Anti-Israel Boycotts and Sanctions


Steinberg, Gerald, Jewish Political Studies Review


NGOs (non-governmental organizations) focusing on human rights are powerful actors in international politics in general, and in the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. The NGO community has advanced anti-Israel agendas in the UN, including in the 2001 Durban conference, which adopted the strategy of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). NGO reports, press releases, and political lobbying campaigns constitute an important source of "soft power," and they have a powerful influence in the UN, the media, and academia. This NGO-led political war against Israel uses the weapons derived from the rhetoric of human rights and international law and is conducted via the UN, the media, churches, and university campuses. Examples include promoting the Jenin "massacre" and "war crimes" claims (April 2002), the campaign against the separation barrier ("apartheid wall"), the academic boycott efforts, church-based divestment activities, and efforts to falsely label Israels response to thousands of rocket attacks from Gaza as "collective punishment" and "war crimes." Funding for many of these NGOs is provided by the European Commission and many member governments, as well as Norway, Switzerland, and private organizations, such as the Ford Foundation and the New Israel Fund.

In the past fifty years NGOs (non-governmental organizations) focusing on human-rights issues have become highly influential actors in international politics in general, and in the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. The NGO community constitutes a wealthy and powerful network that has advanced the anti-Israeli agenda in international frameworks such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the 2001 UN Conference against Racism, held in Durban. NGOs have played a central role in these and other examples, promoting the myth that the IDF was responsible for the death of Mohammed al-Dura; the false charges of "massacre" and "war crimes" during the Israeli military's anti-terror operation in Jenin (Defensive Shield) in April 2002; the portrayal of Israel's separation barrier as "the apartheid wall"; the promotion of the AUT (Association of University Teachers) and other academic boycott efforts; the divestment campaign of a number of Protestant church groups; and the "collective punishment" allegations related to Gaza. NGOs' reports, press releases, and political lobbying campaigns constitute a powerful source of "soft power," and they have a significant influence in the UN, the media, and academia.1

Appropriating the rhetoric of universal human rights to pursue narrow political and ideological goals, and protected by a "halo effect," the NGO community has largely avoided analysis and accountability for its actions.2 The "halo effect" is the term used to refer to the degree to which reports and statements made by prominent NGOs are routinely accepted at face value by journalists, diplomats, academics, and others, who act as force multipliers for the NGOs' agendas.3

The "halo effect" is based, in large part, on the historical development of human rights norms, including the post-Holocaust conventions and treaties such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were adopted in 1 948. 4 The emphasis on these norms grew continuously and, as Irwin Cotler has noted, human rights now constitutes the new secular religion.5 As a result, the institutional responsibility for implementing human rights norms has extended from the UN and individual governments to non-governmental organizations.

The tens of thousands of NGOs around the world that have developed on this basis claim to represent civil society - a highly amorphous concept, generally understood to embody an alternative to the prevailing "selfish and particularist interests" of states, governments (including democracies), multinational corporations, and political parties. As such, NGOs are often portrayed and present themselves as altruistic, promoting the common good, while businesses and political organizations are perceived as selfish and particularistic. …

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