Documents reveal how Israel made Amnesty’s local branch a front for the Foreign Ministry in the 70s

The Israeli government funded the establishment and activity of the Amnesty International branch in Israel in the 1960s and 70s. Official documents reveal that the chairman of the organization was in constant contact with the Foreign Ministry and received instructions from it.

At the beginning of April 1970 Police Minister Shlomo Hillel stepped up to the Knesset podium. He updated the legislators on contacts between the government of Israel and Amnesty International concerning detainees imprisoned in Israel and torture. He concluded: “We can no long trust the goodwill and fairness of the Amnesty organization.”

What the minister reported to the Knesset was that for a number of years, Israel had tried to influence the Amnesty’s activity from within. Documents collected by the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research and revealed here for the first time show that some of the people who headed Amnesty Israel from the end of the 1960s to the mid-1970s reported on their activity directly and in real time to the Foreign Ministry, consulted with its officials and requested instructions on how to proceed. Moreover, the Amnesty office was at the time supported by steady funding transferred to it through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: hundreds of Israeli pounds for flights abroad, per diem allowances, registration fees and dues payments to the organization’s headquarters.

The documents show that the most substantive connection was between the Foreign Ministry and Prof. Yoram Dinstein, who headed the branch between 1974 and 1976. Dinstein, an internationally renowned expert on the laws of war who later served as president of Tel Aviv University, had previously been a Foreign Ministry official and served as the Israeli consul in New York.

During his time as chairman of Amnesty Israel, years after he left the ministry, he regularly reported to his former colleagues on his activities and contacts with the international organization.

Amnesty International was founded in London in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson, who, incensed over the arrests of Portuguese students, started enlisting people to petition their governments to release those who have since then been defined as “prisoners of conscience.”

Three years later, the Israeli branch of Amnesty began operations. They were volunteers working on behalf of prisoners worldwide. This activity, however, which from the outset was fairly limited, was damaged in the wake of a report Amnesty International published in 1969 about the situation of the Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. This dispute is the background to Minister Hillel’s report to the Knesset. “The Amnesty branch in Israel consists of one person (more precisely, one woman), who is Ms. Bella Ravdin who lives in Haifa. We are maintaining contact with her but it is not possible to trust her on every issue,” wrote Nathan Bar-Yaacov, the director of the Foreign Ministry department that dealt with international organizations and United Nations bodies, to head of the ministry director general’s office Hannan Bar-On in December 1971.

A 1975 article about Ravdin in Haaretz described her as a serial writer of letters to the editor at various newspapers and an activist for various issues, from legalization of prostitution to benefits for students. According to the article, she invested the money she received as German reparations for her mother’s death in a concentration camp into developing the Amnesty branch. The report says that her criticism of the organization’s attitude towards Israel ultimately led her to cease acting on its behalf.

According to Foreign Ministry documents, Ravdin’s activity was subsidized by the state, which paid her Amnesty International membership dues and funded her trip to the organization’s international conference in 1969. At the time, Ravdin was briefed to bring up the problem of the Jews in Arab countries at the conference and on how to react if the subject of “the Arab detainees in the territories” was raised. Bar-Yaacov wrote: “It is desirable from our perspective that the connection between her and the organization continue in the future as well and therefore it is desirable to make it possible for her to pay the membership fee. Last year, too, we approved this sum for the same purpose.” He signed his letter with a recommendation: “At this juncture it is perhaps desirable to think about establishing a branch of Amnesty in Israel consisting of people who are of somewhat higher status and have executive ability.”

Bar-Yaacov was not the only one at the Foreign Ministry who thought so. In a 1971 letter Mordecai Kidron, the foreign minister’s advisor on the UN, wrote to his colleague Shmuel Dibon, the minister’s advisor in charge of public diplomacy: “Thus far, as you know, we haven’t found the suitable instruments for building a positive image abroad concerning human rights in Israel and in the occupied territories, and on this particular issue it is not possible to make do with government instruments. The establishment of a non-governmental body … which would be actively connected to organizations and personages abroad would be very useful to us.”

In 1971 and 1972, Dinstein tried to establish a human rights institute at Tel Aviv University that would be funded by the Foreign Ministry. He discussed this idea with ministry officials but it was rejected, in part because of the size of the budget Dinstein requested – about 100,000 Israeli pounds (about $23,000 at the time, which, corrected for inflation, is in the neighborhood of $120,000 today). In July of 1972 the Israeli branch of Amnesty was reorganized and four lawyers were appointed to lead it in coordination with the organization’s headquarters. The Foreign Ministry documents have little to say about this period and there are hardly any reports in the various archives about what happened in the organization during the subsequent year and a half.

Things changed at the beginning of 1974, when Dinstein himself was chosen to head the local Amnesty branch. One of the documents shows that the meeting at which he was selected for the position was also attended by the Foreign Ministry officer who Dinstein would be in contact with during his time in office: the deputy director of the international organizations division, Sinai Rome.

Dinstein immediately shifted the organization’s activity into higher gear: For the first time, Amnesty was officially registered as an association and adopted its articles of association. On May 22, 1974, Dinstein updated Rome on his activities – for the most part technical – since he had taken up the position. He requested 2,500 Israeli pounds (just under $600 in 1974; about $3,135 today) for routine expenses and attached an internal Amnesty document that detailed his income from branches abroad. Less than a month later, Rome wrote to “Dear Yoram” that his request had been granted and that 2,000 Israeli pounds (about $476 then; $2,490 today) had been transferred to him.

At least judging from the Foreign Ministry correspondence, Dinstein viewed his work at Amnesty through the narrow prism of making the case for Israel’s position. Thus, for example, he conveyed through the Foreign Ministry an article he wrote in response to an article critical of Israel published by human rights lawyer Felicia Langer in June of 1974. He began by noting that he was writing as “chairman of the Israel national section of amnesty” and did not mention his connection to the Foreign Ministry. Shortly thereafter Dinstein reported to Rome that he had received a letter from an Arab women’s organization in the United States requesting any information he had about Palestinian detainees and prisoners. Including their letter, in which they also requested information about the Israeli branch of Amnesty, Dinstein wrote that he was leaning toward not replying but wished to consult with Rome on the matter. Rome replied: “It seems to us that there is scope for answering the letter and writing that ‘there are no Palestinian prisoners of conscience in the prisons but rather terrorists and others who have been tried for security offenses.’” He asked that all the correspondence be forwarded to Israeli consulates in New York and Los Angeles.

In February 1975 Dinstein notified Rome about a letter he received from the French Amnesty branch concerning Police Minister Hillel’s remarks on the dispute with Amnesty. Dinstein advised the Foreign Ministry to “send the questioner public diplomacy material in French.” Rome replied: “As you have suggested, I am hereby forwarding Mr. Sinai’s[SIC] letter to Mr. Shlomo Drori, of our embassy in France, for his attention, together with the summary of our relations with Amnesty International.”

In May of that year, Dinstein asked Rome for funding for a trip to an Amnesty conference in Switzerland. Rome was glad to tell him that he would receive 6,000 Israeli pounds ($1,000 at the time; about $4,650 today) for a plane ticket and four days per diem allowance. “Please inform me as to which travel agency we should send the money,” he answered. After the conference, which was held that September, Dinstein sent a report with a survey of the organization’s activities and noted that Dr. Nitza Shapiro-Libai also attended the conference as an observer on behalf of the branch. Dinstein wrote that Amnesty’s political leanings were generally left-ish but it could not be said that it was an extreme leftist organization. He explained that there had been a discussion about relocating the organization’s headquarters to Geneva and that the decision had not yet been taken. “The atmosphere that prevails in all of the international organizations centered in Geneva will, in my opinion, be a stumbling block for Israel,” he wrote.

In an accompanying letter to Rome, he wrote: “I am not forwarding this report to other people at the ministry, and therefore it is up to you to decide whether to send it on to anyone for their perusal (for example, to the embassy in London).” Rome thanked him for sending the report and wrote that they were accepting his recommendation “to distribute our replies to Amnesty concerning the report on the prisoners of war in Syria and in Israel to our diplomatic missions aboard.”

Dinstein made it clear in a conversation last week that he does not think highly Amnesty. “I resigned after a few years when I became aware that this is a populist organization very far from everything I believe in, which is research and knowledge,” he said. According to him, “Today Amnesty International is dealing with an area about which it understands nothing – international humanitarian law.” Throughout the conversation, he denied that he had been in constant contact with the Foreign Ministry and had received funding from it during the period he ran the branch. When asked where the funding for the organization came from in those years, he said he had raised the money from his own sources. “There was no need for much of a budget. We employed people part-time then.”

How was the Foreign Ministry involved? “There was no involvement. The Foreign Ministry had no interest.”

Who is Sinai Rome? “He was head of a department at the Foreign Ministry. I knew him but I had no contact with him about this.”

“I don’t know anything,” replied Dinstein when told of evidence that shows otherwise. He added, “I don’t remember,” and ended the conversation.

During those years, Avi Primor was a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. He too is mentioned in a few items of correspondence from 1977, which were addressed to him as head of the international organizations division. He has known Dinstein personally ever since they were both 17-year-old university students before their conscription into the Israel Defense Forces.

“He is a patriot in the sense of ‘whatever my country does is right,’ an absolute patriot,” said Primor of Dinstein. “I freed myself from that when I reached a certain age. He – less so.”

Primor related that Dinstein joined the Foreign Ministry at the same time he did, but did not stay there for very long because he preferred the academic world.

As for the Foreign Ministry’s conduct with respect to international organizations during those years, Primor explained: “Our aim was to influence. Not to fight them, not to vilify and not to forbid them to enter they do today. The aim was to debate, to persuade. I didn’t engage in that but I assume that persuading and influencing in every possible way also includes money.”

It is difficult to imagine a situation today in which senior officials of a human rights organizations would maintain a relationship with the establishment and receive funding from it.

“You can’t compare. It’s a different atmosphere and different concepts. Organizations like Breaking the Silence or B’Tselem – there wasn’t anything of the sort back then,” said Primor. “There were a few people, individuals, and they were perceived as naïve … In the first years of the occupation it was seen as something temporary. No one thought it would go on for 50 years. That was something unimaginable.”

During that period, Dr. Edward Kaufman, who later became the chairman of the board of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, worked alongside Dinstein at Amnesty. “It was a club of jurists and lawyers,” he told Haaretz this week. Kaufman relates that he had a conflict with Dinstein over the latter’s activity to benefit the state of Israel.” He saw himself as the State of Israel’s watchdog,” he recalls.

However, Kaufman too is mentioned in Foreign Ministry documents as someone who was in contact with ministry staff, though he is depicted as less fervid than Dinstein. For instance, Rome thanks Kaufman for a report the he sent about an Amnesty conference on the subject of torture held toward the end of 1973, following the Yom Kippur War. “The main objective toward which the delegation worked was the release of the Israeli captives in Syria,” Kaufman wrote. He added that the cooperation with officials at the Israeli Embassy was productive and included a letter he had sent after the conference to the secretary of Amnesty International.

Kaufman confirmed this and gave it context: He described an completely different atmosphere among human rights groups and the Israeli left operating under a different government than the one that prevails today, and notably, a different personal feeling toward the state. “There wasn’t a sense that there were grave problems with human rights. We are talking about the period of ‘enlightened occupation’ and at that time I felt quite good with respect to the situation of human rights in Israel and in the territories.” The Foreign Ministry, he said, wanted him to explain what was happening at Amnesty. “I don’t remember that I was given any briefing to do anything or to fight against anything,” he said.

Dinstein resigned from his position at Amnesty against the backdrop of conflict that developed with Kaufman. Shapiro-Libai, who replaced Dinstein and served in the position until the mid-1980s, said that in her day, the branch didn’t receive any funding from the Foreign Ministry – Amnesty International paid its operating budget. “I think there was an interest that Israel should be a part of Amnesty because it is an important human rights organization,” she said. “I didn’t know that [Dinstein] reported in writing to the Foreign Ministry. I don’t assume that anyone knew but I do assume that he didn’t see any conflict of interest in that.”

Lior Yavne, the executive director of Akevot, who found the documents, told Haaretz: “The manipulative exploitation of the civil society organizations in the years 1969 to 1976 in order to advance Israeli public diplomacy and refute findings and claims concerning violations of human rights in the territories is reminiscent of the activities of organizations and groups in recent years that supposedly originate in the civil society but have murky sources of funding and operate to damage the legitimacy of human rights organizations critical of the policy of the Israeli government. Now as then, this attack undermines the very existence of a free civil society.”

The Israeli branch of Amnesty now operating in Tel Aviv was registered as a nonprofit organization in 1988 and is a late incarnation of the association established some three decades earlier. In recent years nearly its entire budget comes from Amnesty International. The organization does not receive any money from the Israeli government and last year there was even an attempt in the Knesset to deny its donors tax benefits.

In a statement, Amnesty’s International Secretariat responded that the documents “present serious allegations suggesting that the leadership of our former Israel section acted in a manner that was blatantly at odds with Amnesty International’s principles.” Touting “impartiality and independence” as the organization’s core tenets, the statement points to a policy of not accepting government funds for any of its research or campaigns. “Our records show this principle was first formally agreed by the movement in 1975. No government should feel it is beyond our scrutiny,” said the statement.

The statement says that “Amnesty International maintained rules at the time prohibiting sections from working on cases of human rights violations in their own country. Our work on Israel was therefore determined by the International Secretariat, not the former Israel section. Throughout this time Amnesty International highlighted human rights abuses being committed by the Israeli authorities, including calling for the suspension of Israel’s use of administrative detention.

“During the period in question we were a movement that was still in its infancy. As we grew to become the truly global movement we are today, we have continued to develop robust governance policies and procedures to ensure stringent impartiality and accountability.”

Amnesty Israel said that the documents it received demonstrates that the government of Israel has never refrained from making use of any means to evade accountability for the violation of human rights it conducts, in the 1970s as well as today. The branch said that the documents also show that the previous branch of Amnesty, registered as an Ottoman association in 1974, is not the branch that operates today, which was registered as an Israeli nonprofit in 1988, and added that the current Israeli branch is an active and integral part of the worldwide Amnesty movement.