Tony Lerman on the attack on Israeli NGOs
Following attacks on the New Israel Fund, a Knesset bill restricting rights organisations risks eroding democratic culture
26 February 2010
The vicious, McCarthyite attack on the New Israel Fund (Nif), which uses philanthropic funds to foster and support Israeli non-profit, civil society organisations, did not come out of the blue. The ultra-nationalist group, Im Tirzu, which blamed Nif for the Goldstone report, falsely claiming, as Jonathan Freedland showed, that more than 90% of the report’s information came from groups funded by the Nif, was exploiting a climate of vilification of such groups created by the Netanyahu government since it came to power a year ago.
Following the assault on the Nif, and the personal attack on its president, the civil rights champion Professor Naomi Chazan, the Knesset decided to set up a committee to investigate foreign funding of Israeli civil society organisations. Emerging from the committee was a bill that is supposed “to increase transparency and repair loopholes in legislation in relation to the financing of political activity in Israel by foreign political entities”. Supported by members of the Knesset from both the coalition and the opposition, there is every likelihood that this bill will become law within a month.
By using a very broad definition of “political activity”, in reality, the measure will severely restrict a wide range of civil society organisations from carrying out their work. First, their tax-exempt status would be removed, which means that they would have to pay tax on donations. Even more damaging, government and private donors are generally legally restricted from paying taxes to a foreign government, so losing tax-exempt status would threaten these groups’ ability to receive donations entirely. Second, any representative of one of these groups appearing in public – even for a mere 30 seconds – will be legally bound to state, at the outset, that their organisation receives foreign funding. This would restrict freedom of speech. Third, members of such organisations will face the same legal constraints as the officials, a provision that would almost certainly produce a decline in support.
In fact, the law is unnecessary as not-for-profit organisations already have to be completely transparent about their funding, mission and work. It will affect groups concerned with human rights, women’s rights, the environment, migrants, peace and social change. They will be publicly delegitimised and suffer increased state monitoring. Their employees and members will face arrest, prosecution, fines and up to one year in jail.
The law will legitimise a process that is already under way: a wave of assaults on Palestinian and Israeli activists and organisations opposing the occupation has already taken place. Non-violent Palestinian resistance has been quashed by Israeli security forces and Palestinian organisers and activists have faced night-time raids and arrests.
A recent survey seems to suggest that there is the potential for a high degree of tolerance and approval of these actions, especially where human rights groups are concerned. The War and Peace Index of Tel Aviv University last week published results of a poll of Israel’s Jewish residents, which showed that 57% agreed that, in the case of an external conflict, human rights are less important than the national security crisis. In such a climate, the incitement against human rights groups by rightwing columnists must surely find a receptive audience. Not to mention the reports and op-eds by rightwing NGOs and thinktanks.
For example, Seth T Frantzman brands human rights activists as fifth columnists, by claiming they are taking EU money, constitute a European lobby and pursue the EU’s alleged anti-Israel agenda. Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor bizarrely states that the way they operate is a “grotesque distortion of democracy”. The influential Reut Institute recently issued a report arguing that Israel is in existential danger of delegitimisation by radical groups abroad. The Netanyahu government already seems to have taken this message to heart and will no doubt see foreign-funded civil society groups as contributing to this process.
Israel’s democracy has never been perfect. Nor, for that matter, has the democracy of any other country. But over time, with the liberalisation of politics and the economy, a lively democratic culture began to develop. Nevertheless, the country’s claim to be a beacon of western democratic norms has been fatally undermined by the state continuing to treat its Arab population as second-class citizens and by the absence of democratic rights for the Palestinians under its control in the occupied territories. The development of Israel’s civil society institutions over the last few decades has come about partly as a response to this democratic deficit.
It’s hard to credit that a country that wants to be seen as on a par with EU members doesn’t understand that it’s a sign of democracy in practice to allow civil society organisations to operate freely. Restricting them in the way the new law proposes will thus undermine Israel’s democracy. The political landscape, especially as reflected in the Knesset, is already unreceptive to alternative civil society views. The coalition ranges from pragmatic right to ultra-right; the opposition includes a large pragmatic right; and there are almost no defenders of civil liberties. Laws have been proposed that target minorities, outlaw commemoration of the Naqba and abandon Israel’s commitment to the UN convention on refugees.
The further erosion of democracy in Israel will only make it harder than ever to reach comprehensive peace and guarantee the country’s future security.