Another Step Towards Stifling Dissent in Israel

Published on Haaretz

Israeli right-wingers’ latest legislative attempt to smear their critics aims to raise doubts about the real loyalties of civil and human rights activists and then gut their funding.

The External NGOs Law (aka the “Transparency Law”), a draft bill now making its way through the Knesset, is just the latest volley in a campaign to strangle funding sources of civil and human rights organizations in Israel.

This time a bill has been drafted based on the notion that organizations that receive part of their funding from foreign governments are foreign agents, acting on behalf of those governments, rather than promoting the legitimate interests of those they represent.

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This same logic should suggest that the billions of dollars in annual American aid to Israel makes Prime Minister Netanyahu an American agent, acting at President Obama’s behest. Try convincing Netanyahu or Obama of that one. Or, perhaps, Netanyahu himself should be considered an agent of Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolls a daily newspaper to buoy him up.

The new bill would require that NGOs highlight their foreign government funding sources on their documents, in their correspondence with elected officials and public employees, to file more frequent reports about the use of this funding with the NGOs Registrar, and that representatives of NGOs wear a tag when they are in the Knesset, listing the “foreign political entities” which fund them.

The bill is framed in an attempt to insure that it applies primarily to leftist and human rights organizations, but not to right wing organizations, or to entities that receive massive foreign corporate funding.

The underlying strategy is simple; in the guise of promoting transparency, the bill’s sponsors want to convince the public that critics of the government’s settlement and occupation policies, or advocates for greater equality for Arab Israelis, are not patriotic citizens like themselves but rather foreign agents who are not be trusted. Accepting foreign funding to promote leftist views or human rights, according to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home Party), “undermines the sovereignty and the character of Israel and undermines the authority of the government elected by the public.” In other words, rights activists are treasonous.

The brilliance of this tactic is that by smearing their critics, right wing leaders never have to engage with the criticism, let alone change their policies. If they can raise doubts about the messenger’s patriotism, the public won’t even listen to what the rights activists are saying.

In a June 18 Facebook posting, the bill’s sponsor, Betzalel Smotrich (Jewish Home), explained that his proposed law seeks to expose the foreign governments which send rights activists to advance their ideas and agendas in the State of Israel. “Shouldn’t the public and its elected representatives,” Smotrich asks, “know who is meddling behind the scenes, financing and directing the activities and agenda of these organizations?”
This is deliberately misleading, not to mention, demeaning.

Transparency already exists. All Israeli NGOs are required by law to list their funders at the Registrar of NGOs, which is open to the public, and most NGOs share this information on their websites.

More importantly, the fight for civil and human rights begins at home in Israel, not in foreign governments, led by loyal Israelis who are sick of our country’s institutionalized discrimination against Arab citizens, Ethiopian immigrants, and African refugees. They are us, Israelis who care enough to demand that Israel live up to the values demarcated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Does MK Smotrich think that Palestinian citizens of Israel need the European Union to tell them that they are not enjoying full equality in this country? And which government is supposed to be the puppet master behind refugee activists? It is condescending and dishonest to call them foreign agents.

Like Israeli hospitals and universities, which are explicitly excluded from the law’s requirements– and our national and local governments for that matter – Israeli civil and human rights organizations take donations where they can get them. Philanthropic institutions – unlike the foreign private donors who bankroll so many settlements – have clear and publicly stated guidelines.

NGOs, which likewise have detailed mission statements, apply for funds from those potential donors whose guidelines align with the NGO’s mission. Many countries, including the U.K., the U.S., Holland, and the European Union as a whole, have their own government-sponsored foundations that offer grants to non-profit organizations in different parts of the globe. They may or not may not approve an NGO’s funding request, but the organization dictates the agenda to the funder, not the other way around.

Shaked and Smotrich know this, of course, but their bill has little to do with transparency and everything to do with delegitimization. Their goal is to gut the funding from organizations which criticize their cause – settlement normalization and expansion – or which might strengthen Arab citizens within Israel. And it’s nothing new.

Approximately six years ago, a bevy of right wing organizations and leaders concluded that that donors were a vulnerable target on the left, especially for those NGOs advocating that Israel remain a democratic and liberal state or which criticized the occupation.

They noticed that while both left and right get significant foreign funding and Jewish support, right-wing organizations are much more heavily dependent on right-wing American Jews, while leftist and rights organizations get more funding from European and American government foundations, which promote democracy, human and civil rights around the world. Neither America nor the EU, of course, will support settlements. With proper framing (‘foreign government support makes you a foreign agent’) they turned this fact into an Achilles heel – and the right has been attacking the left’s funding sources ever since.

Civil and human rights organizations are part of the bedrock of any functioning democracy. Likewise, watchdogs and advocates demanding that the majority and government live up to standards of equality and fairness. The need for such organizations is perhaps most obvious when they fight discrimination against minorities, a situation about which any Jew who has lived in the diaspora is acutely aware.

Our government ought to protect those organizations that demand we be true to our own best self, not seek to defame them. Imagine America without the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the ACLU, to name a few of the many – sometimes controversial – entities that guard American liberty with eternal vigilance. Unfortunately, neither liberty nor public discourse concern Israel’s current government.

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