This Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet will vote on the Akunis and Kirshenbaum bills, both of which would severely restrict or tax foreign funding for Israeli civil society, and which are the latest salvo in the war against human rights and social justice groups in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already indicated his support for the bills, which are a naked attempt to silence voices critical of government policy that the right-wing governing coalition has deemed unacceptable. This is yet another step in an unprecedented assault on law-abiding, internationally-recognized non-governmental organizations and poses a serious danger to Israeli democracy.
These bills violate 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.
These bills are 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.
These bills 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. The bills may also affect funding for research institutes, think-tanks and other organizations deemed “political” by the government.
These bills will harm Israel’s standing. Passage of either 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.
These bills amount to an 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.