Supporters of Israeli democracy breathed a sigh of relief in November when Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his opposition to two bills that would drastically penalize and defund progressive NGOs, especially human rights organizations.
But the relief was short-lived. The Prime Minister cut a deal with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and came up with legislation combining the worst features of the original two bills and adding new ones. The new bill divides nonprofit organizations into three categories:
- Organizations receiving government support – including those that carry out the government’s political agenda -- would be eligible for funding from foreign governments.
- Organizations that deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state or in other ways threaten the state’s identity, would be entirely ineligible for foreign support. While NIF itself will not fund organizations actively working to change Israel’s identity, strangling NGOs with different positions is a clear violation of freedom of speech and democratic norms.
- Organizations – including almost every human rights organization supported by NIF – that do NOT receive Israeli government support must pay a 45% tax on funding from foreign government. Or, they may go hat in hand to the Knesset and beg for an exemption from the tax. We can only envision B’Tselem, ACRI or Breaking the Silence receiving an exemption from the likes of Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Danon – but even if a progressive government were to take power, no government should exert political control over the mission and activities of civil society.
As an ACRI writer explains it, “The true essence of the law is making all civil society organizations in Israel that seek foreign donations subordinate to the state and its government – since those organizations that aren’t also funded by the state will have no choice but to refer to the special Knesset “exemptions” committee and request the state’s benevolence. If this law is passed it will become much more difficult for an NGO to remain independent and not depend on the state’s generosity, whether it focuses on women’s rights, disability rights or the rights of Palestinians under military law.”
NIF’s human rights grantees do not request or receive Israeli government funding so as to preserve their independence of government policy and politics. But this new iteration of the anti-NGO law will be voted on shortly, and with the combined support of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, it will likely pass.
International pressure stopped these bills before and may do so again. Supporters of Israeli democracy must make clear:
- This bill violates democratic norms. US policy on this issue is contained in the State Department’s Guiding Principles on Non-Governmental Organizations, originated in the Bush Administration in 2006. The guidelines specifically state that “NGOs should be permitted to seek, receive, manage and administer for their peaceful activities financial support from domestic, foreign and international entities.” No western democracy constrains foreign funding of domestic NGOs; the countries best known for outlawing foreign support for human rights groups are Russia, Iran and China. All of us who care about Israel should speak out and ensure that Israel doesn’t become associated with this infamous group.
- This bill is driven by a political agenda. Millions of dollars in foreign funding flow to settler groups and other right-wing institutions, including Israel’s largest-circulation free newspaper. The pending legislation would not impede that funding or even require transparency of these opaque institutions. Never before has an Israeli government used its power for a wholesale shut-down of institutions and organizations with which it disagrees. Stifling dissent is not what democracies do.
- This bill would have a broad impact. American and European financial aid to Israeli hospitals, universities and scientific research dwarfs funding for progressive civil society, roughly one percent of which goes to Israeli human rights groups. Precluding support by the EU and its member nations of human rights groups will amplify EU voices calling for a complete boycott of funding any Israeli institutions. It may violate key treaties between Israel and the EU, damaging diplomatic and economic relations. The new bills may also affect funding for research institutes, think-tanks and other organizations that are independent of the Israeli government.
- This bill will harm Israel’s standing. Passage of this law will contribute to the further deterioration of Israel’s global standing. Israel’s progressive civil society organizations are its best claim to its continued status as a liberal democracy, sharing the values of justice and a free society with the U.S., Europe and its allies worldwide. Secretary of State Clinton has already condemned the measure.
- This bill is a substantial erosion of Israel’s democracy. De-legitimizing the guardians of human rights in Israel is a dangerous initiative. Nothing less than freedom of speech and conscience are at stake. Those who truly love Israel should join the New Israel Fund family in protecting civil society from an assault with a political agenda.