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Human rights NGO's response to attack by Commentary magazine

Following a written assault against B’Tselem in Commentary Magazine, accusing it of being a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” B’Tselem press officer Sarit Michaeli refutes his arguments point by point, showing that B’Tselem is widely regarded as essential to Israeli society

By Sarit Michaeli

There is an inherent contradiction in smear attacks such as Noah Pollak’s tirade against B’Tselem in the pages of Commentary. On the one hand Mr. Pollak would like to convince his readers that the world-respected B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – is an insignificant and alien fringe group in Israel. But this contradicts with the claim that the same B’Tselem is an awesome force, one that can almost singlehandedly trick Justice Goldstone into authoring a bogus report and that poses a mortal danger to Israel’s mere existence. Commentary’s website went even further, labeling B’Tselem: “The world’s most destructive anti-Israel organization.”

The truth is that B’Tselem’s limited, yet not negligible, strength stems precisely from the fact that the organization, its operations and its rationale are intrinsically Israeli. Certainly we are more Israeli than Americans who command us to march in lockstep with our government, while maintaining a healthy skepticism towards their own leaders. B’Tselem and the moral debate we stoke over our country’s human rights record are an inherent part of Israel’s culture, history and psyche. In that sense B’Tselem is as Israeli as felafel, although just like our national dish, it is not always easy to stomach.

Mr. Pollak’s article relies on irresponsible and manipulative paraphrasing of statements by B’Tselem and people affiliated with it, many twisted beyond recognition to advance re-hashed attacks, the most contemptible being the patently false accusation that B’Tselem tolerates, even supports Palestinian violence against Israelis. There is not much new in this laundry list of accusations, nor does the article contain revelations not already “exposed” by those Google warriors who trawl the internet for “damning” material against any critical Israeli voice.

But the practice of unearthing supposedly unflattering evidence to discredit dissent is half the picture. The other half is the conscious choice to obscure and hide information that contradict Mr. Pollak’s false thesis. How would readers respond to the fact that B’Tselem consistently denounces Palestinian suicide bombings and rocket attacks as war crimes? That it demands Hamas release unconditionally Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit? Or that it publicly criticized aspects of the Goldstone report? How can Pollak’s theory hold up to the fact that the Israeli Army’s Military Advocate General, Major General Avichai Mandelblit, went on record to say that “B’Tselem strives for the truth” and that the organization assisted the military in its investigations? Or to the fact that B’Tselem’s staff routinely meet with command and legal echelons of the military?

It is no coincidence that this article which is outraged at the fact that B’Tselem dares voice criticism is based almost purely on English language sources. Hebrew readers and speakers who experience Israeli society firsthand are exposed to extensive internal criticism of Israel’s settlement policy and treatment of the Palestinians. Our newspapers, radio shows, internet and blogosphere, even our most popular comedy show, Eretz Nehederet, regularly ily criticize aspects of our government’s policies. Many mainstream Israeli commentators who fear our growing isolation and our country’s plummeting international position point the blame not at whistleblowers such as B’Tselem, but rather at our collective greed for Palestinian land, which has led to half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as prospects for a viable Palestinian state are trickling away.

The truth is, our society is much more diverse, and public argument and dissent far more common, than what any self-appointed Israeli government apologists would have the world think. The diversity and vitality of Israeli democracy and public debate should be celebrated rather than stifled. B’Tselem is certainly far from popular in our country – show me a truly self-critical human rights defender who wins popularity contests. But even at this polarized and extreme period in Israeli history we proudly boast a public council comprised of some of the most notable Israelis this country has produced. David Grossman, Amos Oz, Chava Alberstein, Gila Almagor, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Ruth Dayan, Alice Shalvi and Rabbi David Rosen, among many others, have publicly stood by us and pledged their support for B’Tselem and its work. B’Tselem is proud of its current and former board members, Jews and Arabs, both those maligned by Mr. Pollak for their opinions and public activism as well as those obscured by him, probably because their opinions don’t serve his “wolf in sheep’s clothing” thesis. With all of their support, B’Tselem will continue to be a proud and critical voice in Israeli society.

The writer is a press officer at B’Tselem. This response was originally published in Commentary.

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    1. Here is my reply to Sarit Michaeli’s letter, as published in the current issue of Commentary:


      Sarit Michaeli’s complaint against me takes the form of two arguments. In the first, I am accused of misrepresenting the viciously anti-Israel statements made by numerous high-ranking B’Tselem officials. My article, says Ms. Michaeli, “relies on irresponsible and manipulative paraphrasing of statements…twisted out of recognition.”

      If this is so, why does B’Tselem not provide a single example to substantiate the claim? Such evidence would be a devastating rejoinder to my article, a silver bullet that would exonerate B’Tselem and focus attention on my credibility deficit. Yet Ms. Michaeli gives not a single example of “paraphrasing” or “manipulation.” The reason is because this charge—like so much of B’Tselem’s work—is a false and meritless accusation. The quotes I used are unambiguous and authentic, and they speak for themselves. Anyone who doubts their accuracy can consult the online version of the piece, where every one of them is hyperlinked to its original source.

      Ms. Michaeli’s second argument is equally vaporous. Here, B’Tselem reverts to the standard debating tactic of Israeli “human rights” NGOs whenever they are criticized: brag of the bravery of dissent, and accuse critics of attempting to silence debate. B’Tselem, the letter says, dares voice criticism and acts as a “whistleblower.” “Debate,” it concludes, “should be celebrated rather than stifled.” Well, yes, I agree completely—and my way of participating in this debate was to write a lengthy critique of B’Tselem, one which, as assuredly as B’Tselem’s next report will accuse Israel of violating international law, I knew the organization would greet with the Orwellian claim that by the very act of debating, I am stifling debate.

      It is fitting that B’Tselem denigrates the revelation of its leaders’ astonishing denunciations of Israel and Zionism as the product of “Google searches.” I encourage B’Tselem to adopt the practice of conducting research. If B’Tselem employees entered words such as “collective punishment,” “disproportionality,” and “the Geneva Conventions” into Google, they might discover to their great discomfiture that these are not mere slogans to be deployed against whatever one doesn’t like, but concepts with reasonably clear definitions, ones that do not apply to every Israeli security measure. B’Tselem often lectures about the virtues of transparency and accountability. Yet when uncomfortable truths are disclosed about B’Tselem, suddenly transparency is denigrated as “Google searches” and accountability is dismissed as an attempt to stifle debate and persecute dissenters.

      If only there were some actual substance from B’Tselem’s letter to which I could respond, some defense of Anat Biletzki’s analogizing the Jewish State to Nazi Germany, or an attempt to explain why the current and former chair of B’Tselem have both signed petitions lauding Palestinian terrorism. It should be obvious by now that B’Tselem cannot respond to these revelations because to do so would be to acknowledge their veracity. And that acknowledgement would expose the ugly truth that B’Tselem works so hard to disguise—that it is not a human-rights organization, but a massive exercise in bad faith, concealing its anti-Israel agenda behind a facade of meretricious human-rights activism.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Genocide of Peace

      Calling an article an ‘assault’ is precious.

      Reply to Comment
    3. David

      Noah Pollack’s arguments seem pretty solid to me. Gotta make you wonder.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aviv Sharon

      Name-dropping is no substitute for argumentation. When the spokesperson for B’Tselem laments in this piece that “prospects for a viable Palestinian state are trickling away” – although the organization supposedly does “not weigh in on political matters, except to comment on their implications for human rights” – It does not matter which Israeli singers and authors are willing to lend their reputation to the charade.

      And the fact that B’Tselem may advocate some good ideas, like releasing Gilad Shalit, is irrelevant. For that matter, I doubt B’Tselem cares for the fact that Israeli presence beyond the Green Line may do some good things too.

      Reply to Comment
    5. […] most of  its financing comes from European governments and American foundations.In an Israeli Web magazine called +972, Ms. Michaeli fired back, saying the article in Commentary “relies on […]

      Reply to Comment
    6. Alice

      I read Noah Pollack’s article in full and found it to be the same kind of thing I’ve come to expect from the knee-jerk-for-Israel crowd in the US: no real case, but instead a bunch of unsubstantiated assertions (eg, that BtSelem has an ‘anti-Israel’ agenda, whatever that means). The only evidence given to support Pollack’s claims is an odd set of quotations, which the author assumes will prove shocking enough to cover up his lack of an argument.

      But why shouldn’t someone like Oren Yiftachel call Israel “an ethnocratic regime”? Does Noah Pollack disagree, and if so, why? He never tells us, which is why this reader was left frustrated (but not surprised).

      Having said that, I wish Sarit Michaeli’s response would have taken him to task a bit more on the details.

      Reply to Comment
    7. As a Jew, I am enraged by the continuing hubris of those
      Americans, Jewish and otherwise, who continue to deny the illegality and total absence of any sense of humanity in respect of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It seems to me that the victims have become the victimizers, Mr. Pollack’s comments to the contrary not withstanding.

      Reply to Comment