How Dutch Israel lobby attacks free speech

Many people march holding signs

A rally in Amsterdam’s Dam square supports Palestinians in the face of Israel’s bombing of Gaza and other attacks, 22 May. Israel lobby groups in the Netherlands continue to try to smear and silence defenders of Palestinian rights.

Paulo Amorim SIPA USA

There have been dozens of attacks on Palestinian rights defenders by Israel lobby groups in the Netherlands.

Smear campaigns, threats of violence, attempts at defunding human rights groups, efforts to restrict academic freedom, threats of lawsuits and cyberattacks are among the intimidation tactics identified in a report released this month by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC).

The Israel lobby group CIDI has been at the forefront of attempts to stifle advocacy for Palestinian rights and efforts to hold Israel accountable.

But the 76 incidents documented in the report also involve other Dutch pro-Israel groups, media, political parties, faith-based organizations, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Israel-based group NGO Monitor.

Israel lobby group CIDI in the forefront

Almost 60 organizations and groups and 23 individuals found themselves in the Israel lobby’s crosshairs between 2015 and 2020, the ELSC found.

CIDI or members of its staff were involved in 60 percent of the reported incidents. This outsize role appears to be a reason for pride.

Former CIDI staff member Hidde van Koningsveld boasted about his role in the incidents in a tweet branding them as a fight against “Jew-hatred and terrorism.”

Van Koningsveld – a convert to Judaism – appears to have recently changed his first name to Akiva. This coincides with his move to Israel last year.

He has taken Israeli citizenship and moved to Eli, one of a cluster of a colonies in the occupied West Bank that have dispossessed Palestinians of vast tracts of land.

This year the Dutch government appointed a national coordinator to fight anti-Semitism.

The person chosen to fill this role, Eddo Verdoner, has long been a CIDI board member . This appears to follow the model of other European anti-Semitism coordinators, whose activities suggest that their priority is shielding Israel from criticism rather than fighting bigotry.

Verdoner’s office has already accused Human Rights Watch of anti-semitism for its report published earlier this year finding that Israel commits the crime of apartheid, ELSC notes.

He has also claimed that supporting freedom in the whole of historic Palestine is the same as calling for the “dismantling of Israel” – that may be an implicit admission that equality is indeed impossible under Israel’s current regime.

Curiously, CIDI’s webpage about Verdoner contains no information.

Other Dutch attackers

Christenen voor Israel, the Dutch branch of Christians for Israel International, was also linked to harassment of Palestinian rights defenders.

It is a Christian Zionist organization that raises money to “build communities” – Israeli settlements – in the occupied West Bank.

In June 2020, Christenen voor Israel urged its supporters to send messages to the Dutch Council of Churches because of that organization’s solidarity with Christian Palestinians who were resisting Israeli plans to annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank.

As a result, according to ELSC, the Dutch Council of Churches received “a flood of hostile emails and comments on social media,” including threatening messages.

Other groups involved in the attacks on supporters of Palestinian rights include StandWithUs Netherlands – an offshoot of a US-based right-wing organization – and Centraal Joods Overleg.

Centraal Joods Overleg claims to represent the general interests of the Jewish community in the Netherlands. Notably, its president is Ronny Naftaniel, who previously led CIDI for two decades.

Another group cited in the ELSC report, Federated Jewish Netherlands, has been described by Naftaniel as a “one-man club.”

Likud Netherlands, a branch of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political party, attacked two publishers in 2015 and 2019 with claims that certain Dutch schoolbooks were “anti-Semitic,” contained “historical falsification” and “read like Palestinian propaganda.”

“Inflammatory and unfounded”

Smear campaigns against Palestinian rights advocates appear aimed to discredit them in the hope that they become less vocal or lose credibility.

“Most of the targeted individuals, groups and organizations reported immediate negative effects of these incidents,” ELSC states. These included “fear of stigmatization and reputational damages, distress and mental health problems, financial burden, inability to carry out activities as planned and drain of time and resources.”

That may be the point of the attacks.

Dutch Israel lobby groups usually base their smears on “inflammatory and unfounded allegations of anti-Semitism or support of terrorism,” ELSC notes.

It asserts that such allegations advance claims from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and NGO Monitor that those who support the Palestinian people are supporting terrorism or anti-Semitism.

Often those attacking supporters of Palestinian rights refer to the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and its guiding examples as justification for their unfounded accusations.

This definition, promoted by Israel and its lobby and adopted by various European states and organizations, falsely equates criticism of Israel and its official ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with bigotry against Jews, on the other.

People in the Netherlands may draw slight comfort because the Dutch government does not consider these examples to be an integral part of the IHRA definition.

Dutch justice minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus acknowledged in 2020 that “some of the examples that the IHRA provides, such as [those on] criticism of states and political debate, are in principle protected by the freedom of expression.”

Grapperhaus told parliament that neither the IHRA definition nor the attached examples were legally binding and were merely a tool to recognize and record alleged anti-Semitism.

Whether an expression or an act is a criminal offense is a legal question to be tested in a Dutch court, he added.

Yet as long as the Dutch government uses the politically biased and deeply flawed IHRA definition in any capacity, there is a risk that supporters of Palestinians will be falsely accused or smeared.

Politicians criticize lobby group

ELSC highlights the role of the Israel-based group NGO Monitor in feeding information to Dutch Israel lobby groups.

NGO Monitor’s website makes inflammatory accusations of support of terrorism that lack credible evidence, ELSC found.

De Telegraaf, a right-wing newspaper with huge circulation in the Netherlands, published stories emanating from groups such as CIDI based on information provided by NGO Monitor, according to ELSC.

NGO Monitor’s reports about Dutch financial support for Palestinian organizations have been used to call for their defunding.

These tactics were used last year against the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Gaza-based human rights organization Al-Mezan.

De Telegraaf – acting as a mouthpiece for Israel propaganda organizations, rather than as independent media – reported the smears without any evidence, framing the Dutch government as “financing terror.”

NGO Monitor has been criticized by the Policy Working Group of Israeli ex-diplomats and academics, ELSC notes.

The working group characterized NGO Monitor materials as “highly selective” and containing “baseless claims.” The academics and former diplomats concluded that NGO Monitor “disseminates misleading and tendentious information, which it presents as factual in-depth research.”

Dutch politicians have voiced similar criticisms of NGO Monitor.

Halbe Zijlstra, then foreign minister, told parliament in 2017 that he could not do much with NGO Monitor’s information.

“Very often these are very vague allegations,” Zijlstra said.

Last year, his successor Stef Blok echoed these views, noting that “these allegations have contributed to a climate in which human rights organizations have come under increasing pressure.”

“As far as the government is aware, the NGO Monitor does indeed focus exclusively on organizations and donors that are critical about Israel’s policy,” foreign minister Blok acknowledged.

Despite this recognition, we can expect that Israel lobby groups in the Netherlands will continue their efforts to undermine the fundamental rights of those who stand up for Palestinian liberation from occupation and apartheid.

But I am convinced that many of us will not bow to the pressure.

You can read the report by European Legal Support Center in English and Dutch.


Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh