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A serious diplomatic confrontation between Israel and Germany took place during the recent visit of the Foreign Minister of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, on Tuesday, April 25, when his host, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minster of Israel, requested that Gabriel not meet with Breaking the Silence, an organization which claims to defend human rights. When Foreign Minister Gabriel ignored this request, Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled his scheduled meeting with his German guest. A major diplomatic incident resulted. 

by Dr. Joel Fishman

The Israeli press accused the Prime Minster of seeking a cheap victory, of threatening freedom of speech and democracy in Israel.  Two official German statements are significant. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “It should not be problematic for foreign visitors to meet with critical representatives of civil society.” And last night (May 7) German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on his visit to Israel, said that … “I believe that civil-society organizations that are part of the social debate deserve our respect as democrats, even when they take a critical view of a government – in Germany but also here in Israel.”  Such statements may have been well-meant, but they reflect a serious lack of understanding of political conditions in Israel.

The problem is that our German friends (and many Israelis) do not understand the difference between civil-society organizations and front organizations.  They are not the same and serve different purposes.  According to the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, voluntary organizations and civic associations could be political parties, trade unions, religious organizations, and cultural and educational bodies that are to be found in liberal societies.  Though public, they are not official or governmental.  They enable individuals to discuss matters of public concern and to participate in the life of civil society without direction by the state.

Civil society organizations do have an important part to play in a democracy, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the most important developments was the rebirth of civil society in the former East Bloc.

Civil society organizations should not be confused with front organizations, whose purpose is to weaken the existing system and to destabilize democracy.  Robert Conquest defined the front organization as follows:  “An organization that serves as a cover for aims and activities other than its professed ones;  in particular, an ostensibly non-communist organization with liberal, religious or other public men of goodwill as the leading figures, but in fact controlled by the communists.  Front organizations in the latter sense were devised in the 1930s by the Comintern’s propaganda genius, Willi Münzenberg, with aims such as supporting the Spanish Republic, justifying the Moscow trials, and (in England in 1940) advocating peace with Germany.”

"Breaking the Silence“ mit Gästen auf Tour in Hebron. Foto „Breaking the Silence“ / Facebook
„Breaking the Silence“ on Tour in Hebron. Foto „Breaking the Silence“ / Facebook

The Comintern has passed into history, but the front organizations of today still use the classical methods of Willi Münzenberg.  Many of its organizers continue to be radical leftists. They engage in deception by claiming to fight for the high ideals of human rights but in reality are enemies of the state.  They engage in political warfare whose purpose is to delegitimize and weaken the Jewish State of Israel.  They claim to be “whistleblowers” but seek to exploit the type of grievances which may be found in any society, and some of which may be legitimate.  They endeavor to keep such grievances before the public and to aggravate the divisions within Israeli society.  They seek to undermine Israel’s strong sense of solidarity and habits of mutual responsibility.  Their efforts seek to inhibit the Israel Defense Forces and the police from using force when it is necessary to preserve public order.  By delegitimizing the state and arguing that it inherently lacks virtue, they seek to demoralize the public and to spread the feeling that the state is not worth fighting for.

The minority of the elite in Israel which launches such front groups does not have a popular following and could never hope to win power through free democratic elections. This explains their methods which are based on the proposition that the end justifies the means.  This is also one of the reasons that front organizations in Israel invite and encourage foreign interference in Israeli domestic politics.  Not the least they need money and outside political support.

While it is critically important to know the difference between the organizations of civil society and front organizations, this unfortunate diplomatic incident could have been avoided if the German Foreign Minister had acted as a good guest and shown the basic respect that any visiting diplomat should have for his host, in this case the Prime Minster of Israel.

Dr. Joel Fishman is a historian and fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He received his doctorate in modern European history at Columbia University. His area of research is political warfare.