Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s controversial ‘NGO Bill’ passed a major hurdle on Monday February 9th, as the Knesset voted 50-43 in favor of the draft legislation in its first reading. The measures would require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive over 50% of their funding from foreign governments and their subsidiaries to publically disclose this information on all publications. Amid a backdrop of political tension between the Israeli left and right, the legislation has widely been regarded as an attack on organizations that exert pressure on Israel’s human rights record and ongoing occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which are more likely than right wing groups to receive public funding from abroad, than from wealthy individuals and religious groups.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked
Certain groups are held in particular contempt by the right of the political spectrum, as Breaking the Silence, for example, has been the subject of an extraordinary number of private investigations, smear attempts and critical op-ed pieces. It is perhaps unsurprising that an organization that encourages IDF members past and present to document human rights abuses is so despised, considering the near-sacred reverence felt by many Israelis towards the armed forces.
Fear may well be the driving force behind much of the draconian legislation that lies before the Knesset. The Van Leer Institute recently hosted many NGOs and civil society organizations to discuss the ‘red lines’ of Israeli democracy. A key theme that emerged from the discussion was the marginalisation felt by the government and Israeli right wing more broadly, who believe that global attitudes are increasingly hostile to Israel. The fact that those on the left appear to be in line with the majority of the international community’s thinking on the current situation – not least in regard to human rights violations – might go some way in explaining the bellicose campaign underway to intimidate organizations that attempt to sway the minds of the Israeli public, and open eyes to the violence of the Likud-led coalition.
Left wing NGOs are presented as an existential threat to Israeli democracy
Professor Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor
One of the curious appeals made by those critical of left wing NGOs is that Israel might in some way be facing an existential threat in the shape of foreign-funded organizations. It is suggested that undemocratic forces are at work, undermining Israel’s elected government and its decisions. Proponents of the scheme, such as NGO Monitor’s Professor Gerald Steinberg, claim that foreign funding of civil society forms “part of a much larger international campaign against Israel”1. It must be noted that Professor Steinberg’s organisation does not disclose all of its sources of funding, demonstrating the key issue at the heart of this legislation – sly, intentional legislation to force different rules for NGOs on different ends of the political spectrum. NGO Monitor and many others on the right will face no pressure from Minister Shaked’s proposals, despite massive private donations from abroad, including to organisations facilitating and promoting settlement construction, which is illegal under international law.
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Former Soviet prisoner and human rights activist Natan Sharansky’s recent Haaretz article claims that Breaking the Silence “uses unproven allegations peddled as truths to credulous foreigners in order to override the decisions of a democratic government”, adding that withdrawal from the West Bank “is a political question that should be decided by Israel’s citizens through their elected representatives, not by a small group of self-appointed prophets and their chorus of foreign supporters”2. These critics, amongst many others, seem to envisage a curious form of democracy that does not leave the walls of the Knesset, whereby democratic engagement with the public takes place only via the polling booth. Where exactly the tapestry of forces that exist within a vibrant democracy and active civil society fit within this vision of Israeli politics is unclear.
NGOs operate in their own climate of fear
Another integral criticism of NGOs that underpins Shaked’s bill is the allegedly conspiratorial private and anonymous manner in which many NGOs go about their business. The fact that many organizations withhold the identities of those who testify against the State of Israel and its practices, it is alleged, undermines their activities and may, it is suggested, be indicative of false, slanderous campaigns with little substance. However, the reality seems to be that widespread anxiety over reprisals and smear campaigns felt by leftists and human rights activities are primary reason that such groups undertake their work in such a private manner.
The sensitivity of the political climate is exacerbated by prominent statements that perpetuate public fears that certain NGOs exist only to undermine Israel. Commenting on the ‘Transparency Bill’, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described the widespread “use and abuse”3of NGOs, sponsored by foreign agents. When coupled with the endemic tarring of human rights activists with the label of ‘traitor’, it perhaps become clear why secrecy has become a hallmark of the left. Steven Beck of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) states how " [the bill] really does is put in the mind of the average Israeli that organizations fighting for things like human rights are negative and subversive and foreign"4.
Indeed, one may argue that the prying actions of right wing organizations such as NGO Monitor have led directly to the very climate of fear that necessitates anonymity amongst activists. It is perhaps ironic that campaigns such as those undertaken by groups such as NGO Monitor have contributed to the Israeli government’s current policy proposal – an undemocratic interference if judged by its own standards and foreign (although private) funding streams.
The international community has reiterated its fears that the current draft legislation is a step in a worrying direction. German MEPs wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu to express their concern that it is “difficult to understand why this draft law addresses only certain parts of civil society while others, mainly privately funded NGOs with substantial impact on Israeli politics and legislation, are excluded”. It remains to be seen whether the Justice Minister’s bill will clear the obstacles that remain and pass into law. Regardless, there remains an ongoing battle for control of vital spaces in civil society and the implications will be integral to the future structure and vitality of Israeli democracy.