Continuing Menachem Begin’s legacy

This year’s Begin Prize will be awarded to NGO Monitor, "a leading organization defending the State of Israel and the Jewish people".

NGO Monitor staff 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
NGO Monitor staff 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The legacy of Menachem Begin is a lasting one; having fought for Israel’s independence as leader of the Irgun, remaining in the opposition for a record eight election cycles, finally becoming Israel’s sixth prime minister, and making peace with Egypt, Begin’s shoes are not easy to fill. Menachem Begin received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 (along with Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt); Begin decided to put the hefty award money from this prize into a trust and every year this trust grants 10 scholarships to students in the Perach project, which pairs needy children with university students who act as their mentors. It is in this spirit that the Menachem Begin Heritage Center created the Begin Prize, being awarded next week to NGO Monitor.
The Begin Prize is an annual award given since 1999 to a person or organized body who has accomplished an “extraordinary act(s) for the benefit of the State of Israel and/or the Jewish People.”
Past recipients include Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut (2003), Nefesh B’Nefesh which promotes and assists aliya from North America (2004), and the residents of Sderot for standing firm against years of rocket and terror attacks (2006).
Richard Landes, professor of History at Boston University and director of the Institute for Cognitive War Research, when describing this year’s recipient says “NGO Monitor may be the single most effective player in the cognitive war of the 21st century. (Founder and president Prof. Gerald) Steinberg and his associates identified a key area where the West was unexpectedly and terribly vulnerable and started to shed light on the moral and venal corruption of the global ‘human rights’ NGOs. Very few organizations have done more to shore up the defense of democracies than this group which demands that people who claim to be on the cutting edge of the progressive movement live up to their own standards.”
NGO Monitor, under Steinberg’s tutelage, researches who funds and leads these NGOs. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, who recommended NGO Monitor for the Begin Prize, agrees with Landes, saying “NGO Monitor is the leading organization defending the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Steinberg and his team are dedicated to ensuring that “human rights” organizations which actually engage in political advocacy and influence policy in negative and often dangerous ways are held accountable. They aim to promote accountability and discussion of reports and activities of NGOs which claim to advance human rights; specializing in studying the funding of these organizations, both direct and indirect. Through campaigns such as NGO Lawfare and BDS in the Pews, they have become experts and the leading source on the activities and funding of NGOs involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
STEINBERG FOUNDED NGO Monitor, an independent research institution, over a decade ago as a response to the notorious 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which quickly turned into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate fest and where, under the auspices of the United Nations, over 1,500 NGOs concluded to delegitimize and isolate Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) among other means. Fighting these efforts at delegitimization has been a central focus of the organization’s work for the last 15 years since delegitimizing Israel has been a focus of political NGOs.
NGO Monitor stood for many years, according to Steinberg, as the only organization dedicated to fighting soft power, to examining factual and legal claims of NGOs who exploit the image of human rights and humanitarian agendas through researched reports and detailed analysis. In addition to publishing a myriad of reports and other publications, there are many things happening “behind the scenes” such as meeting with members of the Israeli, US and European governments, and even NGOs themselves. These under-the-radar efforts have impact through exposing and sharing reports filled with unsubstantiated and political biases against Israel.
This soft power war is one Steinberg says the Israeli government ignored for far too long (and in some ways still does). It is “insidious and invisible and therefore it does not get the headlines or focus” yet it is just as dangerous as traditional war and hard power. What makes this war challenging is that the NGOs are a coordinated powerful network with large treasure chests. In addition, there is the “halo effect,” where NGOS are considered moral and neutral simply because they are non-profits claiming human rights mandates, ultimately adding to their access and influence.
There are thousands of NGOs dedicated to delegitimizing Israel but NGO Monitor is able to track only 150, focusing on their funding, which frequently comes from the governments of Europe who provide more money to Israel advocacy NGOs than any other single country; 50 to 60 million euros a year. Similar to the disproportionate number of resolutions against Israel at the United Nations, this level of funding puts Israel as Europe’s designated worst violator of human rights. Europe, particularly EU High Representative Catherine Ashton’s office, continues to be a challenging field, with some officials proving to be defensive and secretive, refusing to look at the damage they are doing through massive unsupervised funding, using NGOs to further their policies, and politicizing human rights. This funding and politicizing feeds an endless circle that NGO Monitor is fighting to break.
Also troubling is that often European governments are not aware of the radical organizations they are funding, setting up third party organizations who then decide where the money goes.
While these governments and NGOs are used to criticizing Israel, Steinberg notes they are not used to receiving such criticism themselves and often lash out when cited by his organization. However, Steinberg does not wish to muffle these conversations, just the opposite; as a member of Israeli civil society he wishes to engage the debate.
DESPITE NUMEROUS challenges, NGO Monitor cites many successes such as when supporters of these NGOs like the Ford Foundation and various foreign governments including Canada and the United States cut or end altogether their funding after instituting new procedures in their funding processes, thus curtailing NGOs’ activities. Countries and foundations now take their funding more seriously and often consult with NGO Monitor. Steinberg also notes that his organization has helped to change the way NGOs are perceived, particularly in Israel, North America and the United Nations, albeit in ways distinctive to each case. Steinberg believes Israel now has a more critical perspective, recognizing NGOs are not always what they claim to be.
A significant Israeli success is B’Tselem, an NGO highly critical of and focused on Israel, which now puts in its reports that it is unable to verify statements made by eyewitnesses, something Steinberg notes is very important because this had been a problem for many years.
This success is particularly important because Jewish and Israeli organizations have the shield of being just that, Israeli and/or Jewish. This shield allows them to claim that they are not anti-Semitic or singling out Israel when in fact that is exactly what they are doing. NGO Monitor also cites playing a significant role in the infamous Goldstone Report as a great success; having exposed the role of NGOS in the original report and being a major influence in the just as infamous retraction by Goldstone himself.
Steinberg and his staff warn these issues they battle are not just important to Israel but to the Western world overall.
However, for the sake of the Begin Prize, the role they have played benefiting Israel and the Jewish people is more than sufficient. Moshe Fuksman Sha’al, deputy director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, says NGO Monitor is a fitting recipient because it fights for the truth and stands up to the lies being told against Israel; a fight Begin passionately fought. Fuksman Sha’al continues that Begin was a proud Jew who cherished the truth and avidly fought unjustified attacks against Israel, just as NGO monitor fights continued attacks to Israel’s legitimacy. Begin felt strongly about the sovereign right of the Jewish people and NGO Monitor’s work fighting delegitimization is an expression of the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality; making NGO Monitor a fitting and worthy recipient of this prize. Steinberg hopes receiving this prize will allow NGO Monitor to reach a new level of visibility and thus increased influence, along with additional resources (in addition to the NIS 50,000 prize money) to expand their its base including environmental issues.
Past awards have been given to people or organizations serving specific needs.
The Prize Committee (made up solely of Israelis who have served publicly) recognized the “enormous impact” NGO Monitor has had for more than a decade and how it has improved Israel’s position among the nations, something Begin fervently fought for. NGO Monitor has changed the discourse of how people look at non-governmental organizations; that they need to be checked and not simply taken at face value. It has fought and continues to fight against efforts at isolating and delegitimizing Israel. This award is in recognition of the work NGO Monitor has been doing since it was founded and the work it has yet to do.
The timing of the award is no accident.
Begin received his Nobel Peace Prize near Hanukka, the scholarships and Begin Prize are also given during Hanukka in the spirit of the holiday.
Fuksman Sha’al says that as Hanukka is the Festival of Lights, the recipients show that there are people and organizations who continue this light, who carry the light of the Maccabees everyday for the Jewish people and Israel.
When deciding on a recipient, the Prize Committee looks for a person or organization who shows that Begin’s legacy is still relevant, a symbol of his legacy and NGO Monitor does that just, exemplifying Begin’s continued relevance by defending Israel on the world stage.