Israel’s Human Rights Spies

A fascinating expose in Ha’aretz reveals how, in the mid-1970s – not long after the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights – Israel used university faculty members to infiltrate Amnesty International.

The state thus actively intervened in order to shape human rights activism, just as the rights discourse was becoming one of the most popular forms of political struggle against injustice around the globe.

The Haaretz article discloses how Yoram Dinstein, a renowned scholar of international law and currently a professor emeritus at Hebrew University, served as an agent for the Israeli Foreign Ministry during his tenure as the chair of Amnesty International’s Israeli branch from 1974-76.

Working with the ministry’s Deputy Director Sinai Rome of the international organisations division, Dinstein acted as an informant while manipulating the rights group’s activities.

For instance, when an Arab women’s association in the United States requested information about Palestinian detainees and prisoners, Dinstein wrote to the ministry, telling them that his inclination was not to reply.

The ministry’s deputy director, however, insisted: “It seems to us that there is scope for answering the letter and writing that ‘there are no Palestinian prisoners of conscience in the prisons, but rather terrorists and others who have been tried for security offences.'”

He also instructed Dinstein to forward all correspondences to Israeli consulates in New York and Los Angeles.

In addition, Dinstein used his position as “chairman of the Israel national section of Amnesty” to criticise cause lawyers, such as Felicia Langer, who were struggling for the human rights of Palestinians in Israeli courts, thus, in effect, utilising the organisation’s reputation to undermine human rights.

An ideological and financial exchange

Dinstein’s colleague from Hebrew University, Edward Kaufman, who later became the chairman of the board of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem and continues to this day to be a well-known advocate of human rights, as well as an active member of the peace industry, is also mentioned as someone who was in contact with the foreign ministry’s staff.

While he is depicted as a less enthusiastic collaborator than Dinstein, in one of the letters the ministry’s deputy director thanks Kaufman for a report he prepared about an Amnesty conference on the subject of torture, which was held towards the end of 1973, following the October War.

The exchange was both ideological and financial. The expose reveals how Dinstein received governmental money for his expenses, disclosing that he was not the only Amnesty staffer to accept governmental remuneration.

These revelations suggest that already during the 1970s, when human rights were still considered by many as a radical weapon for enhancing emancipation and as a tool for the protection of individual freedoms against abusive states, Israel was relatively successful in marshalling the way the human rights discourse was mobilised by the local branch of the most prominent international rights organisation.

They further suggest that state domination and human rights advocacy are not always antithetical.

From covert operations to overt actions

Today, such covert operations are clearly augmented by overt actions. Israel now feels comfortable clamping down on human rights NGOs that denounce the systematic policies of state dispossession and subjugation of Palestinians, presenting them as a national security threat.

Simultaneously, university faculty members continue to take part in the attack against liberal human rights NGOs.

NGO Monitor, for example, analyses reports and press releases of local and international NGOs and investigates the international donors funding them.

Founded by professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University, NGO Monitor was the first Israeli organisation to couch its criticism of liberal human rights organisations in security parlance.

His line of reasoning was articulated in an article entitled, NGOs Make War on Israel, and, in a different venue, also claimed that human rights are being exploited as a “weapon against Israel”.

Steinberg thus tapped into the post-9/11 conservative trend in the US, which began employing the term lawfare – commonly defined as the use of law for realising a military objective – in order to describe the endeavour of individuals and groups who appeal to courts against certain practices of state violations emanating from the so-called global war on terrorism – such as torture, extra-judicial executions, and the bombing of civilian urban infrastructure.

‘A lawfare campaign’

NGO Monitor’s Anne Herzberg explains that a lawfare campaign is being waged against Israel by “NGO superpowers” (such as Amnesty International andHuman Rights Watch), who in cooperation with liberal Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups resort to universal jurisdiction to pursue litigation in European, North American or Israel’s national court.

While these NGOs claim to be part of the fight for human rights, the evidence shows, in Herzberg’s opinion, “that the core motivation for this activity is to promote lawfare” in order to “punish Israel for carrying out anti-terror operations”.

Along similar lines, Elizabeth Samson, a lawyer specialising in international law from a right-wing think-tank also based at Bar Ilan University, contends that those who deploy lawfare “are not fighting an occupier or challenging a military incursion – they are fighting the forces of freedom, they are fighting the voice of reason, and they are attacking those who have the liberty to speak and act openly”.

The interests of these faculty members are completely aligned with the state. They are concerned about the fact that the evidence of systematic violations gathered by local human rights NGOs is exceeding the boundaries of the domestic debate.

They are threatened because the accusations of abuse are piling into an immense archive of state-orchestrated violence, an archive that can no longer be marshalled within the state’s legal, political, and symbolic space. Therefore, they are continuously attacking liberal human rights organisations.

While human rights spies are probably still out there, the difference between the 1970s and today is that they no longer need to be undercover.


First Published in Al Jazeera.

Nicola Perugini is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Italian Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University and the author of The Human Right to Dominate (with Neve Gordon, Oxford University Press 2015). You can follow him @PeruginiNic Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation as well as The Human Right to Dominate (with Nicola Perugini, Oxford University Press 2015). You can follow him @nevegordon

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