Dutch diplomat joins leading Israel lobby group

The AJC Transatlantic Institute is a leading player in the Brussels-based pro-Israel lobby. (Photo via Facebook)

A Dutch diplomat has been hired as a leading lobbyist with a pro-Israel group that is encouraging bigotry against Muslims.

In the past two years, George van Bergen has gone from working as a civil servant handling dossiers on the Middle East to persuading his former colleagues that they should work in Israel’s interests.

After a stint with the Netherlands’ embassy to the European Union, van Bergen now serves as deputy director with the AJC Transatlantic Institute, the Brussels office of the American Jewish Committee.

In that capacity, he has been trying to promote hostility towards Palestinians.

When explosions occurred in Brussels on 22 March, van Bergen wrote an article implying that there was a link between Islamic State, a despicable 2012 attack on a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse and to Palestinians resisting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“Islamic State has by now indeed claimed responsibility for this atrocity,” he stated. “And with it proves again, as we have been saying for many years now, that radical Islamic terrorism may start with Jews in Toulouse or Tel Aviv but it won’t stop there — it will threaten Western civilization as a whole.”

Such comments were clumsy, insensitive and a distortion of the truth. Islamic State is not involved in any kind of alliance with Palestinians, as he insinuated.

On the contrary, it has behaved in a brutal manner towards Palestinian refugees in Syria.

The comments were in keeping with the outlook of his organization.

Murray Goldman, a board member of the AJC Transatlantic Institute, exploited the Brussels bombings in an even more gratuitous way. “Political leaders in Europe and America must publicly challenge the majority of the Muslims in the world to condemn acts of terror and violence,” Goldman wrote in The Atlanta Jewish Times.

Insult

Implying that the “majority of Muslims in the world” approved of violence was an insult to the memory of Loubna Lafquiri. A mother of three, Lafquiri was killed by the bomb on the Brussels metro.

She lived in Molenbeek, a largely Muslim area of the city which has become a punching bag for the media and right-wing politicians.

And calling on US leaders to “publicly challenge” Muslims reeks of double standards. Since the beginning of this century, the US has either directly attacked or assisted attacks on Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Mali and Libya. Forgive me if I have left anywhere out.

Van Bergen’s aforementioned article was titled “Sliding Doors” (it mentions the Hollywood romantic comedy of that name in which “a split second can change a lifetime”). Yet van Bergen epitomizes a phenomenon known as “revolving doors” — the anti-democratic practice in which politicians or officials take jobs with corporate-funded pressure groups.

According to his LinkedIn profile, van Bergen’s current tasks include “strategic planning of the organization’s policy priorities in the EU” and “establishing and maintaining contact with EU officials.”

In other words, van Bergen is now using contacts he made while drawing a salary from the public purse to drum up support for Israeli apartheid.

More than a week ago, I asked Pieter de Gooijer, the Dutch ambassador to the EU, if he was concerned about van Bergen’s conflict of interests. I received a brief message from the ambassador’s office, saying he was too busy to reply. Van Bergen himself did not respond to requests for a comment.

The AJC Transatlantic Institute is less than transparent about how it is funded and the nature of its activities. Its entry to the register of lobbyists accredited to the EU institutions suggests it is dedicated to “Middle East peace and human rights.”

The only data it provides about its finances is that it had a total budget of €598,000 ($681,000) last year.

I am part of a team of researchers that has investigated how the “institute” and other pro-Israel groups in Brussels are funded. The report of our probe was published on Monday.

Harming peace?

The AJC Transatlantic Institute operates with money received from the American Jewish Committee, which is headquartered in New York.

The American Jewish Committee’s largest known donor is Seth Klarman, a billionaire investor.

He is also known to have supported Elad, a group seeking to expel Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem so that their homes can be taken over by Israeli settlers.

The AJC Transatlantic Institute has been trying to persuade the EU to go soft on Israel’s settlements in East Jerusalem and in the wider West Bank.

In 2013, the Union published a policy paper stating that firms or institutions based in the settlements should not be eligible for scientific research grants or other EU subsidies.

Constructing, expanding and maintaining these settlements amounts to war crimes. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from moving its civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Daniel Schwammenthal, the institute’s director, nonetheless had the audacity to argue that by opposing the settlements in this way, the EU was harming the “peace process.”

More recently, Schwammenthal has been trying to spread Islamophobia, too.

Last month, he complained to The New York Times about how “several critical roots of radicalization” were missing from an article that offered a “nuanced view” of Belgium’s Muslim population.

“Immigrants from Morocco in Belgium often watch the same Arab TV stations seen across the Middle East,” Schwammenthal argued. “Many programs readily available in Belgium by satellite TV and the Internet feed Arabic-speaking viewers a constant diet of Salafist propaganda, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.”

His remarks about anti-Semitism should be treated skeptically. The AJC Transatlantic Institute continues to promote a dubious definition of anti-Semitism that conflates robust criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews.

There is a great deal of opposition to Israeli apartheid among Muslims living in Belgium, just as there is among the residents of Europe generally. That appears to be what’s really troubling the AJC Transatlantic Institute.

Accepting that Israel is at fault would be too big a step to take for the institute. It’s much easier to whip up fear.

Update: A few hours after this article was published, I finally received a comment from Pieter de Gooijer, the Dutch ambassador to the EU. De Gooijer stated that “the terms of employment law for Dutch civil servants do not include an anti-competition clause.”

He added: “Employees, therefore, can resign whenever they see fit — taking into account a notice period of at least two months — and take up any new position they want.”

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Just downloaded the report. Thanks David, and to your colleagues, for this valuable work. These scoundrels fully merit the exposure you're giving them.

David Cronin

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David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada. His new book is Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel (Pluto, 2017).