(LobeLog contributors have written about the Lawfare Project here.)
By Max Blumenthal
As the anti-Goldstone, human rights-bashing Lawfare Project’s opening event on March 11 wrapped up, I asked its chairman, Columbia University Law School Dean David Schizer, for an interview. Schizer, who had just attacked the Goldstone Report from the podium, pointedly refused to speak to me and looked for the exit. As Schizer was leaving, he was politely confronted by Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke, who heads the school’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Law.
“Why didn’t you invite any speakers with an alternative perspective?” Franke asked Schizer.
His reply was curt. “We invited one or two but they couldn’t make it,” Schizer claimed before hurrying away.
Schizer was understandably nervous about his exposure. After all, he had just presided over a day-long conference during which Israeli human rights workers were labeled as traitors while Judge Richard Goldstone and human rights groups were compared to “anti-Semitic street gangs.” After several speakers had harshly condemned legal efforts against the construction of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Schizer appeared beside them to lend his credibility to their views.
Held in the ornate NY County Lawyers Association meeting room in downtown Manhattan, where the walls were adorned with portraits of the pioneers of international jurisprudence, the Lawfare Project’s conference had the look of a non-partisan academic conference. However, the event was organized by a network of American Zionist groups and conservative operatives with apparent encouragement from the Israeli government.
As Scott Horton noticed at Harper’s, the Lawfare Project’s rollout event followed a remarkably similar conference in Jerusalem two weeks earlier. Both conferences followed legislation in the Knesset designed to force NGO’s to disclose their foreign donors so they can be more easily branded as a fifth column and to strangle human rights groups in Israel and occupied Palestine.
The presence of high-level Israeli officials like UN Ambassador Gabriela Shalev at the Lawfare Project conference suggested that the Netanyahu administration was the hidden hand behind the event. If so, the Israeli government has deployed its American Jewish allies to take the fight across the Atlantic to groups like Human Rights Watch and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Both groups were attacked at the event as anti-Israeli and anti-American.
I arrived late in the day but just in time for a panel moderated by Pat Robertson’s longtime legal counsel, Jay Sekulow. Sekulow, a convert from Judaism to evangelical Christianity who has spent his career representing anti-gay and anti-abortion clients, appears to be playing a key role in the Lawfare Project.
Through his American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), Sekulow reaps millions of dollars each year from Christian conservative donors. He uses that money to pay himself upwards of $600,000, provide a lavish lifestyle for his family, and procure the services of the PR firm, 5WPR, which represents other upstanding clients like Girls Gone Wild and the pro-settler Hebron Fund.
5WPR was handling the press list for the Lawfare Project and shuttling its speakers to and from media appearances. 5W Senior Account Executive Maggie Davis told me that through the firm’s relationship with Sekulow, she was arranging media appearances for Brooke Goldstein, founder of the Children’s Rights Institute, which happens to share a domain address with the Lawfare Project. Both websites were registered by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which played a direct role in planning the conference. Goldstein is now the lead spokesperson for the Lawfare Project, according to 5W’s Davis.
NGO Monitor legal advisor Anne Herzberg was featured prominently at the conference. During a panel discussion, she accused the European Union of “pouring hundreds of millions into these NGO’s…that are actually in favor of a one-state solution.” Without naming those NGO’s or explaining why accepting foreign money was such a crime, Herzberg boasted of suing human rights groups to force them disclose their donors. She accused Israeli NGO’s like B’tselem of causing “a breach of sovereignty” against Israel by contributing data to the Goldstone Report — an insinuation that Israeli human rights workers were traitors.
An NGO Monitor report was distributed to conference attendees identifying groups supposedly promoting “post-colonial ideology” as “anti-state,” “anti-democracy” and “anti-American.” The report identified NGO Monitor’s top targets: the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al-Haq. Al-Haq was singled out because, along with a staffer from the Israeli group B’Tselem, it filed an expert opinion in the case to move a section of the separation wall annexing thousands of acres of farmland from the Palestinian town of Bil’in to a nearby Jewish settlement.
The attack on Al Haq highlights part of NGO’s Monitor’s not-so-hidden agenda: to allow the settler movement to usurp land in the West Bank without limitations. As Didi Remez reported, NGO Monitor has partnered with the Institute for Zionist Strategies, led by Yisrael Harel, who helped to found the Gush Emunim settler movement and lives in the religious nationalist settlement of Ofra. Remez also pointed out that NGO Monitor has made no demand for financial transparency from pro-settler organizations which are also engaged in what it would call “lawfare.”
NGO Monitor has also targeted US-based human rights group. It has gone after Human Rights Watch on the basis of the group’s contribution of reporting to the Goldstone Report and because Goldstone was at one point a HRW board member. The Center for Constitutional Rights was singled out because its founder, Michael Ratner, went on the recent Viva Palestina mission with Code Pink. None of the factual documentation these groups released was challenged by the NGO Monitor report or in Herzberg’s presentation. Instead, the groups and their leadership are being targeted with a scattershot of accusations that recall McCarthyism in its crudest form.
As a consequence of his zeal, NGO Monitor director Gerald Steinberg was hauled into an Israeli court this month and forced to apologize for claiming a Palestinian human rights group “justified violence.” Yossi Alpher, a former advisor to Ehud Barak, has condemned Steinberg’s activities, writing that NGO Monitor “seems dead set on eliminating human rights monitoring of Israel entirely and smearing anyone who supports this vital activity.”
The NGO Monitor report and the speakers at the Lawfare Project event expressed alarm about the effectiveness of the global BDS movement and its success in exposing apartheid practices in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Speaker Richard Heidemann, the Honorary Chairman of B’nai Brith, said that the fight against BDS was essential to the Lawfare Project. “We have to stand up against slander, we have to stand up against boycott,” he proclaimed. “If you were accused of apartheid, wouldn’t you consider taking action?” However, he proposed no specific measures or tactics other than making vehement statements.
Francois-Henri Briard, a conservative French attorney, voiced his outrage that the BDS movement had successfully pressured the French company Veolia to pull out of an Israeli light rail project that would have connected illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem. He called the initiative against the rail line “an attack on Israeli sovereignty” even though it specifically targeted the settlement enterprise across the Green Line.
Jeremy Rabkin, an outspoken neoconservative law professor, echoed Herzberg’s smearing of human rights groups as treasonous. “These human rights groups we keep hearing about are not loyal to their country or to democracy, but to some strange world order,” he declared.
Not to be outdone, David Matas, the senior legal counsel to B’nai Brith Canada, maintained that because the International Criminal Court represented the legacy of the Holocaust, it should always side with Israel. He went on to compare the Goldstone Report and efforts to invoke international law to prosecute Israeli officials to “anti-Semitism by gangs in the street.”
Matas’s invective against international law was ironic in light of the fact that his most notable court case called upon international legal bodies to prosecute China for supposedly harvesting the organs of Falun Gong practitioners. In September 2009, Matas hailed a Spanish court (the concept of “forum shopping” in Spanish courts was attacked repeatedly during the conference) for indicting former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Chinese officials for what he called “genocide and torture.”
Matas has defined genocide as merely stating “the intent to kill” a group of people. What’s more, he has justified prosecuting Jiang by invoking International Criminal Court statutes governing the prosecution of high government officials who did not directly commit crimes against humanity but may have allowed them to occur through specific administrative measures. Couldn’t these statutes also be applied against the Israeli government officials who oversaw the assault on Gaza?
Matas’s invocation of international law to prosecute Chinese officials while attacking it to protect Israeli officials highlighted the underlying cynicism of the Lawfare Project. Indeed, the project has nothing to do with combatting the abuse of international law per se; it is an ideologically-driven effort to intimidate anyone who stands in the way of Israel’s human rights abuses.
According to 5W’s Davis, the Lawfare Project’s opening event was a strategy session designed to “raise awareness.” Though it is still unclear what actions the project will take, the demonization that human rights groups and other democratic elements in Israel have weathered foreshadows the attacks their American allies may soon face.
Independent journalist and filmmaker Max Blumenthal is the New York Times best-selling author of Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party and a Nation Institute Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Salon.com, and Mondoweiss, among other outlets. You can read his blog at maxblumenthal.com, where this post originally appeared.