By Alon Liel, EU Observer
BRUSSELS – When I took up the Israeli ambassadorship in South Africa in 1992 the tide of history was already turning towards democracy. But numerous Apartheid laws were still in force, albeit no longer strictly applied. I particularly remember those designed to disable civil society, destroy community organizations and stamp out human rights. These include laws to stifle funding to human rights organizations. I recall how alien this seemed to me at the time.
Today those memories come rushing back. Legislation about to be voted on in the Knesset is strikingly similar to that from Apartheid South Africa. The Ministerial Committee on legislation has approved amendments proposed by MKs Kirshenbaum and Akunis which would restrict funding from foreign states to local human rights groups. The enforcement of this law would chill Israeli democracy and what remains of our once-vibrant society.
In South Africa, the process began with the Schlebusch Commission of Inquiry into Certain Organisations. Israeli MK Kirshenbaum recently proposed a similar committee intended to “probe the finances and legitimacy of Israeli human rights organizations.” This is how it usually starts.
Immediately thereafter the South African parliament passed the Affected Organisations Act which aimed to “curb interference by foreign countries on the internal political scene” and to prevent “foreign financial assistance for the furtherance of any particular view.” This applied to any group deemed to be an “Affected Organisation.” The Israeli amendments speak in almost identical language of “Restricted Association.”
The South African law at least guaranteed some form of due process in that a group could not be deemed an “Affected Organisation” unless declared so by the State President following a factual investigation and recommendation by a panel of three magistrates.
The proposed Israeli legislation provides for no equivalent due process. It states simply that “a Restricted Association shall not receive donations from a foreign state entity.” This will include any group advocating refusal to do any part of military service or that promotes any form of boycott.
In 1973 the South African deputy minister of justice stated: “The republic defends its borders against political aggression. It must also prevent foreign financial interference in domestic political affairs.” Those words would not sound strange if uttered by a present Israeli cabinet minister.
The danger of trying to seal a country off from the world was keenly appreciated by the lone voice of conscience in the South African parliament, a Jewish woman and a personal friend of mine, Helen Suzman. She said: “South Africa is slipping more and more into the control of a growing body of secret men, making secret investigations and reports.” But a nationalist parliamentarian argued that the law was necessary to block funds to students who “aligned themselves with the blacks.” This scare tactic worked and the South African bill was carried into law.
Like in Israel, the South African law was not targeted at groups involved in violent or illegal activity. Its targets were those consistent voices of conscience which had become a problem for the regime. The National Union of South African Students, the official representatives of all university students, was declared an Affected Organisation by the minister of justice. “What is being attacked” – said the students – “is the right of young people, to determine what is wrong with their society and to embark on creative programmes to counter its ills and to open the possibility for a positive future.”
In defending the Fundraising Act of 1978, minister of justice Jimmy Kruger said “the act would be used to take action against fundraising activities aimed at undermining authority or threatening state security,” saying that his government knew that large amount of money came to South Africa from abroad “actually intended to ensure our destruction.”
Our Israeli politicians justify their actions with identical fears. The basis for the Kirshenbaum-Akunis law is that “organizations, which often refer to themselves as ‘human rights organizations’,” actually have the “sole purpose to cause harm and to alter Israel’s political discourse from within.”
The truth, however, is that the organizations likely to be affected are those fighting to preserve what remains of Israeli democracy and the progressive vision of the declaration of independence.
My experience in South Africa told me that such laws end up failing. They fail because a democratic country cannot close itself off from the world without destroying itself. The law intends to protect Israel’s public image but in the process Israel’s public image is damaged. The enactment of such a law delegitimizes Israel, whilst the importance of such organizations is only made more apparent.
When the Kirshenbaum Committee was suggested the co-director of Breaking the Silence, Mikhael Manekin, explained this dynamic: “They don’t need to love us or tell us that we are patriots. They are doing far more damage to this place than we are. Because of them millions of Palestinians live under military occupation. Because of them Palestinian-Israelis do not live in full equality in their own country. And because of them our position in the world is deteriorating day by day.”
This law will fail because shooting the messenger does not help. The world knows about the occupation. The waves of disapproval and outrage at this wrongdoing will wash over whatever barriers we erect.
It is imperative that Europe and the rest of the international community make it clear to Israel that the world will not be deterred from helping those Israelis who struggle for a solution based on human rights and justice.
The writer was the Israeli ambassador to South Africa between 1992 and 1994 and the director general of the ministry of foreign affairs of Israel