|Written by Boston Office|
A Report from the Front Lines: NIF and SHATIL work to safeguard Israel's democratic future
April 6, 2011
Readers of NIF News know that Israeli democracy is increasingly fragile. In recent months NIF/SHATIL have been enmeshed in particularly challenging political and social developments, including a spate of legislative efforts designed to diminish fundamental democratic rights. Despite our best efforts, the Knesset went into the Passover recess having passed two dangerous bills into law. Another bill also passed, but was weakened so substantially by the NIF family’s efforts that it will have little of its intended impact.
For more than a year now, NIF's action arm SHATIL has been busy advocating against nearly 20 anti-democratic legislative attempts supported by various elements of the governing coalition. In close collaboration with NIF leadership and flagship NIF grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), SHATIL Center for Policy Change advocacy and media specialists reached out to Members of Knesset, government ministries and the media in an effort to obstruct anti-democratic legislation at a time when much of the public is either oblivious or hostile to the concepts of human, civil and minority rights. Guided by NIF’s commitment to Jewish and universal values, and building broad-based coalitions whenever possible, the Center for Policy Change seeks to convey the message that racism and authoritarianism are neither Jewish nor patriotic.
"These are difficult times, particularly in the Knesset,” said Shimon Malka, SHATIL Center for Policy Change Director. "But our day-to-day work with ACRI and other partners is having an effect. We gradually see more and more public figures realizing that we all must step up and protect basic democratic values."
This past winter, the Elkin bill, aimed at obstructing donations from "foreign state entities" to Israel's human-rights organizations, passed the Knesset. This bill was designed to defund progressive groups while allowing right-wing and settler groups, which receive millions of dollars in donations from private funders, to elude scrutiny or regulation. However, thanks to intensive lobbying by the NIF family, the most punitive clauses were not included in the final bill, which essentially codifies the existing situation by requiring organizations to transparently report donations.
Another bill, which will remind Americans of the pre-civil rights era in the U.S., became final last week. According to the Admissions Committee Law, the admissions committee of a settlement, village or moshav with no more than 400 people has the right to reject prospective neighbors on the grounds that they are not suited to the cultural-social fabric of the settlement. In effect, the law promotes segregation and polarization, negating the need to better integrate Israel's multicultural and diverse society. In sanctifying the right of those who live in planned communities to choose only like-minded neighbors, Israel will continue its trend of de facto marginalization of minorities. Social solidarity and the willingness to hear other people's opinions will diminish, and with them an important building block of a shared society. As bad as the new legislation is, it actually was toned down from its original version, which permitted discrimination against religious, ethnic and other minorities. NIF grantees ACRI and Adalah have already petitioned the Supreme Court to repeal the law.
The Nakba Law initiated by Yisrael Beitenu, which also passed during the last week of the winter session, very specifically targets Israel’s Arab minority. The law stipulates that the government will not provide financial support to any municipality, theater or organization that marks Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, and that indeed “wrongful” groups and municipalities can suffer the loss of ten times the designated expenditure. The legislative process was vehemently criticized both within the Knesset and by civil society organizations, and as a result, the punishment for commemorating the Nakba was downgraded from the original penalty of imprisonment to the withdrawal of state funding. Both the original and the revised forms of the Nakba Law are a classic example of an attempt to exclude a large segment of the population from the fundamental right of free expression. ACRI Executive Director Hagai El-Ad calls it the institutionalization of a second-class right of free speech.
Outgunned and outspent, the NIF family is nevertheless working tirelessly to prevent and mitigate the onslaught of anti-democratic legislation. We are reevaluating how best to exert our influence and are looking at the political situation creatively, building new bridges to different sectors and launching new local and strategic collaborations. Despite the grim news surrounding the passage of the Admissions Committee and Nakba Laws, the NIF family feels cause for optimism.
Recently, we scored a major victory when the Knesset declined to move forward with a committee of inquiry into Israel’s human rights organizations. We also fought successfully for higher taxes on offshore drilling to bolster funding for education and the social safety net. (For a detailed report on our advocacy activities, click here.)
Despite the continuous attempts by some members of Knesset to build an authoritarian and exclusionary Israel, we have been able to stop – or mitigate – many of the worst measures proposed by the ultra-nationalist right. Stay tuned to NIF News for future updates, and ways in which you can take action!