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This smear against Israeli human rights activists is all too familiar

Photograph: APAimages/Rex Features

Adalah defends Palestinian rights. The European Jewish Congress attack on it reflects a wider pattern of bullying.

Last week, the president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) launched an extraordinary attack on an Israeli human rights organisation, Adalah, comparing the NGO to the far-right French National Front and British National party.

Moshe Kantor, who heads the umbrella organisation for elected representatives of Europe’s Jewish communities, was responding to a leaked EU document that expressed concern for Israel’s treatment of Palestinian citizens (EJC declined to comment for this article). Claiming that the report had used Adalah as a source, Kantor said:

“Adalah, an extremist organisation on the margins of society, openly declares a radical political agenda to change the nature of the state of Israel and has worked alongside some of the most radical elements in the region. It is like using sources from Front National to understand French society or the British National party to understand British society.”

Adalah is a well-established legal rights centre in Israel that works to promote and defend the rights of Palestinian citizens (”Israeli Arabs”). It has special consultative status with the UN’s economic and social council (ECOSOC), and has received funding over the years from the likes of Oxfam, New Israel Fund and Christian Aid.

Just last month, as Adalah co-founder Hassan Jabareen received an award for his work, the NGO was described by retired Israeli supreme court judge Ayala Procaccia as working “to advance human rights” with “outstanding intellectual power” and “high moral commitment”.

Why, then, would the EJC president compare this respected defender of minority rights to a party that Britain’s prime minister has previously described as “a bunch of fascists“?

In a disturbing parallel with the attacks on NGOs in Israel itself, the answer lies in Adalah’s record of defending Palestinian rights against human rights abuses and discrimination perpetrated by the Israeli government.

Kantor’s rhetoric is all too familiar for human rights defenders in Israel in recent times. Last July the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described a number of human rights groups as “terror organisations”. Pressure groups such as NGO Monitor boast of “naming and shaming” those (like Adalah) who they say are “demonising Israel“.

There are now legislative moves to restrict foreign funding of human rights groups, in a move that a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa says is “strikingly similar” to laws that applied during the apartheid era. The “targets” of the law in both cases are “those consistent voices of conscience which had become a problem for the regime”.

Two aspects of Adalah’s work cause particular offence for some of Israel’s apologists. First, it challenges a status quo that discriminates against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, by pursuing legal cases to the highest levels in the country’s courts.

Adalah has highlighted the root causes of discrimination by proposing a “democratic constitution” for Israel “based on the concept of a democratic, bilingual, multicultural state”. The perception of equality as a threat, Adalah notes, is “characteristic of colonial regimes”, not of a genuine democracy.

The second aspect is that Adalah works through the Israeli courts and at the UN to protect civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories on the basis of international humanitarian law and seeks accountability for war crimes – for example, during the attack on Gaza three years ago. This is deemed beyond the pale for those leading the offensive against Israeli human rights organisations.

Kantor’s comments reflect a wider pattern, where even small efforts to do something constructive about challenging human rights abuses or discriminatory practices in Israel are met with smears, bullying and over-the-top bluster.

Documenting the facts and confronting injustice has never been without consequences (particularly for Palestinians) but the climate of paranoia and retribution is steadily growing.

First published in The Guardian.

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