Human rights group B’Tselem backs away from “sponsorship” of J Street’s Olmert gala

Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert drink a toast to life at Passover celebration and Kadima farewell event for Olmert on 2 April 2009.

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Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has backed away from its sponsorship of US Israel lobby group J Street’s 26 March “gala” featuring former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert under whose leadership thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese were killed and injured in what B’Tselem itself has termed war crimes.

Last week, I reported that B’Tselem USA, the organization’s US branch, had sent out an email declaring that it “is proud to be a sponsor of J Street’s third annual conference, Making History, in Washington later this month.” The email, which asked for donations, noted that “The conference will feature former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.”

This was a shocking declaration for a human rights organization given that Olmert has never been held accountable for war crimes, and J Street itself has voiced “unequivocal support” for Israeli human rights abuses.

Today, Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem wrote that the email was a “mistake.” Distancing her organization from J Street’s decision to invite Olmert, Montell added:

B’Tselem has raised grave suspicions regarding serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law under the Olmert government, specifically regarding Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. These suspicions and responsibility for any violations have yet to be adequately investigated and addressed. If asked, we would not have advised featuring Olmert as a speaker.

B’Tselem wriggles out

Montell’s disavowal came in a response to a protest letter from Uri Horesh inspired by EI’s post.

Yet the question remains how a human rights organization put out an email by “mistake” declaring it is “proud to be a sponsor” of a gala featuring Olmert as a keynote speaker? Did the “mistake” extend to an actual sponsorship agreement that is now being quietly binned?

And finally, Montell’s email fails to address the fact that as my original post points out, J Street itself has offered “unequivocal” support for Israeli human rights abuses. And yet, as Montell’s email below indicates, B’Tselem remains “very glad” to be participating in its conference.

At the very least, Montell should just as “unequivocally” condemn J Street’s support for Israeli human rights abuses and war crimes. But despite Montell’s face-saving gesture, no self-respecting human rights organization should have any role in an event providing Olmert a platform, let alone an organization that actually supports Israeli war crimes. B’Tselem should be protesting this event, expressing how “glad” it is to participate in it.

Full text of Montell’s email

Dear Uri,

In fact, B’Tselem is not a sponsor of the J Street conference. This was a mistake in the e-mail and will be corrected later today. We are a participating organization, and are very glad to be part of a long list of Israeli and American groups participating in J Street and dedicated to pursuing a different and better reality for Palestinians and Israelis alike. This year we are proud to be organizing a distinguished panel addressing Israel’s human rights record and the way the international community treats Israel when it comes to human rights issues - a question that is many times abused by the political debate, but rarely examined factually.

Aside from organizing this panel, B’Tselem was not involved with any other aspects of the conference, including the decision to feature former PM Olmert. B’Tselem has raised grave suspicions regarding serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law under the Olmert government, specifically regarding Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. These suspicions and responsibility for any violations have yet to be adequately investigated and addressed. If asked, we would not have advised featuring Olmert as a speaker.

B’Tselem set up a US presence to promote human rights awareness and advocacy among US audiences. We are glad that J Street  offers the opportunity to engage with a broad and diverse spectrum of views. We are committed to ensuring that human rights are a central part of this conversation, especially within an atmosphere in the US where many times such voices are silenced.

Sincerely,
Jessica Montell
Executive Director
B’Tselem

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Comments

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It's a pragmatic choice. B’Tselem looks at the opportunity to speak to an audience they will normally never get. Or other interests are at stake, you never know. That B’Tselem is (also) under fire is evident. Politicians make similar choices. They wouldn't be my choices though.

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As wishy-washy as JStreet may be on the I/P issue, from what I have seen in their mailings, I doubt they would have given 'unequivocal support' to Israel's human rights abuses. In fact they are usually vocal in opposition to the abuses -even though they are supportive of Israel and a 'two-state' solution.
It is good that B'Tselem have retracted its sponsorship of the Olmert event, however belated!

Ali Abunimah's picture

Abe, J Street gave unequivocal support to Israel last week, specifically as it was carrying out extrajudicial murders in Gaza. Well documented in my original post

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Point taken Ali! It takes little for JStreet to back Israel in such cases, which is the true test of where they are at on the realities of what is happening.

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Ali,
I looked at your original post, but didn't see the attribution to which you inferred. It would help to have the source of J-Street's statement that was the basis. Hard to imagine that they would have stated it directly as you suggest; was it your interpretation of J-Street's position or statement that caused you to include the term within quotation marks? I want to be careful and don't want to give the pro-Israel folks cause to accuse EI of making false or defamatory claims. Thanks, Mikos