Americans tend to think of a 501(c)(3) tax exemption as the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” from the U.S. Government, indicating that the organization does work of which the government approves. Not necessarily.
In Financing the Flames, Edwin Black reveals his meticulous research on “human rights” organizations that use charitable funds for distinctly non-charitable purposes. Incitement, promotion of boycotts, lobbying, and the delegitimization of the IDF and the state of Israel among both Israelis and the international community are their common characteristics. B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund (NIF) are thoroughly dissected financially and ideologically; NIF’s open political lobbying in the U.S. is particularly well documented and should call its tax-exempt status into question.
At bottom, these organizations are part of a broader effort to undermine Israel. The most fascinating types of cases in Financing the Flames are frequently reported without elaboration in the Western press: the uprooting of “Palestinian” olive trees and the apparent abuse of Palestinian women and children, both by the IDF.
There is a Talmudic prohibition against destroying fruit trees during war, based on a verse in Deuteronomy, so images of the IDF uprooting hundreds, of not thousands, of trees make people who are otherwise sympathetic to Israel just a little bit uncomfortable – actually, a lot uncomfortable. The violation of a Talmudic principle is enough to nurture seeds of doubt about the IDF even in non-religious Jews.
But from “Rami,” a Palestinian in Deir Istiya, Black discovers the image manipulation of left-wing foreign organizations who are planting olive trees in a nature preserve, “which is not allowed just because it is a nature reserve. So these trees would have to be taken out — uprooted by the Israelis … So why do they do it? They are encouraged to make trouble.”
Black then roots out the International Women’s Peace Service (which is not U.S. tax exempt) a self- described “volunteer confrontation and intervention organization.” Three Western women, including an American, represent IWPS in Deir Istiya. They told Black, “We resist the Israeli occupation, train the villagers, and we do field research. We go to the Friday demonstrations at Nabi Saleh. We work with Deir Istiya to plant trees and sometimes supply those trees.”
Trees they know will be uprooted with unsettling accompanying visuals.
The demonstrations at Nabi Saleh are also designed and manipulated to create unease among Israel’s supporters. In probably the best chapter, Black moves with B’Tselem and International Solidarity Movement organizers through the West Bank town as men, women and young children observe the Friday ritual of provoking the IDF. “The youngest children were in the vanguard… trained to taunt the IDF within an inch of the soldier’s nose to provoke an adult response against a child … The children have been schooled to vigorously wave a flag and pole as close to the soldier’s eyes and nose as possible.”
Israeli soldiers, with strict rules of engagement, try not to flinch, but if they do, the cameras capture maximum visual impact and minimal regard for truth.
Financing the Flames also shows how NIF, B’Tselem and other similar NGOs are unmoved by Palestinians who prefer to be productive and who believe such Western organizations are a source of trouble, not liberation.
Mohammad is one of more than 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israeli industry. Asked about international NGO-led boycotts (which the Coalition of Women for Peace calls “encouraging”), Mohammad, the father of five, replies, “If a boycott hurts this factory, I would have to sit home, no money … and 40 to 50 other people in this factory will also lose their jobs and sit with me. None of us will have money for food. Then 250 kids won’t eat because of this, and the supermarket in the village will close.”
Black wonders if B’Tselem or NIF have ever visited the factory. Mohammad says only one Western organization had been there: Target. “Target department stores?” Black repeats. “Yes, just Target.”
Rachel Liel, NIF’s executive director, calls Mohammed’s story “an illusion.”
Sheikh Zaid al-Jabari, leader of the most important Arab clan in the Hebron area, complains to Black, “Millions of dollars are given to these organizations, and they say it is ‘for peace.’ But … instead of putting water on the fire, they are fanning the flames. I can make peace on my own in my own area … I have asked B’Tselem not to enter Hebron, as they don’t help but instead make provocations.”
By the end of Financing the Flames – as with most of Edwin Black’s careful and thoroughly annotated works – the facts and figures can be overwhelming, but the people and principles are clear. There are Palestinians and Israelis trying to live and work in the face of left wing, Western organizations that claim to “help,” but instead incite ever-increasing Palestinian violence. Whether naively or deliberately, Americans fund some of that violence with U.S. tax-exempt dollars.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center in Washington, DC.