Out Loud

  • The New NGO Bill – No Democratic Parallel

    05 December 2011

    Hard-line Knesset members’ efforts to make life difficult for Israeli NGOs and civil society groups are nothing new.

    JESSE_LEVINELast year, one of the major attacks came in the form of a bill, sponsored by MK Ze’ev Elkin, that would have stripped organizations receiving any foreign government money whatsoever of their tax-free status, and required that such organizations register as foreign agents.

    This year, MKs Fania Kirschenbaum and Ofir Akunis updated Elkin’s approach a bit: their proposed legislation (which was revised and consolidated into a single bill on November 30) would place NGOs into three separate classes, with different rules for each: most NGOs would be hit with a crippling 45% tax on any foreign government funding they received; others – those NGOs whose actions and goals the government deemed particularly dangerous – would be barred from receiving any foreign government donations at all; finally, overtly non-political groups, such as Magen David Adom, and organizations sponsored by the Israeli government, would be unaffected. Like the Elkin bill, the Kirshenbaum-Akunis bill targets only foreign government money – which accounts for a big chunk of the funding of many NGOs and civil society groups; private foreign donations – the lifeblood of many right wing organizations – are completely ignored. In other words, while the tactics have changed (slightly) in the past year, the goal remains the same: to stigmatize and starve the large sector of Israeli organizations that depend on foreign government funding to operate.

    So it should come as no surprise that this latest round of attacks is justified in exactly the same way as its earlier counterpart: this isn’t anti-democratic, the United States does it too. Specifically, in a number of recent interviews, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has endorsed the legislation, claiming that it is modeled after, or even a “direct translation” of, the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Fortunately for the United States, MK Lieberman is wrong.

    Neither the language of the Kirshenbaum-Akunis bill (either as originally introduced, or as updated), nor its purpose and effect, resemble FARA in any way. FARA is a narrowly tailored statute, aimed at ensuring transparency among those people and institutions whose work is explicitly directed or controlled by a foreign entity (e.g. lobbyists for foreign governments). Simply taking foreign donations would not be nearly enough to trigger FARA.

    Moreover, FARA only requires that foreign agents register as such with the Department of Justice, and make certain ongoing disclosures thereafter; their tax status, and who they may take money from under what circumstances all remain unchanged.

    The Kirshenbaum-Akunis bill, on the other hand, is unmistakably punitive, creating a triple-standard that targets specific political actors, either taxing their foreign state donations at an arbitrary and exorbitant rate or barring them outright. Quite simply, the comparison to FARA, or to any other American law for that matter, is totally misplaced.

    MKs Kirshenbaum, Akunis and Lieberman, of course, have every right to push for any legislation that they believe in. But false comparisons to US law only obscure the bills’ real implications. Trying to make the case that these bills do not erode democracy is a tough sell.

    Jesse Levine is a human rights lawyer based in New York.

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  • Don’t Let Israel Fail You

    29 November 2011

    AaronSimply put, there are only two distinct reactions to when a community disappointments you: do something about it or do nothing about it. Engage or disengage. Act or give up. Fight or flight.

    I understand the lure of the non-action. I know too well of its seductive power. It is easy to give up and pretend that others might do the fighting for you. From there, it is only a small leap to allow oneself to slip into apathy and not give a damn.

    I’m talking about Israel here. Specifically, I’m talking about how many American Jews of my generation have struggled with their relationship to the Jewish State.

    I remember growing up in a Jewish community. I remember being a synagogue brat being raised by an observant set of parents. I also remember the Jewish day schools and the “Hebrew High” night school that I attended when I switched over to the public school system. I remember not being able to watch Saturday morning cartoons and having to settle for catching the reruns during the weekdays.

    I remember Israel. I remember hearing about how it was the best and brightest place on earth. It was where our ancestors lived thousands of years ago, where her citizens talk in the same language that we prayed, where Jews actually could tan without turning red and maybe even compete athletically. We were told of her scientific achievements, her robust economy, her warmer climate and lower drinking age.

    This place sounded awesome.

    We visited the place when I was in third grade. I remember the wailing wall, the archaeological digs, the pizza and the beach. Then I saw a Jewish soldier carrying an M-16 in the Jewish Quarter on the Holy Sabbath. I asked my father for an explanation. He told me that there exists a whole bunch of people that want to destroy Israel and that we need to keep our guard up, even on Saturdays.

    I was flabbergasted; why would anyone want to do such a thing? The answers then came from classmates, teachers, community leaders, family and my own assumptions: anti-Semitism. The world wants us dead, simple as that.

    So I lived in a bubble of sorts; assuming that anyone who had anything bad at all to say about my ancestors’ homeland were either anti-Semitic, crazy or both. Media outlets and Jewish organizations were quick to agree with my conclusion. These people who protest the Jewish State want us dead. They are the enemy.

    For the most part, I was reasonably happy in my bubble. Israel was the land of the Jews, and I was going to defend her no matter what. Even if the detractors sounded reasonable, I just assumed that they could not possibly understand what it meant to be a Jew in this hostile world.

    Then came college, which happened around the same time as the 9/11 terror attacks. Although I was shell-shocked and filled with grief and anger, there was a part of me that felt vindicated; this is what we Jews have to deal with every day. It seemed like I was poised to push deeper into my bubble.

    But then something odd happened. I remember talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a fellow classmate. I don’t remember her name, but I remember feeling like we believed in a lot of the same things. Her politics and mine weren’t identical per say, just strikingly similar. In this conversation, she mentioned something she did not like about Israel. For the life of me, I can not remember exactly what, but I do remember the uncomfortable feeling in my gut. I also remember not arguing back about it, and feeling puzzled as to why a fair-minded person like her would say such a thing about my country. I resented her and never talked to her again.

    I did not realize it then, but this was a life-changing moment. I began to read up a bit on the conflict, not from pro-Zionist sources that I was accustomed to, but from news outlets that didn’t have a stake in the conflict one way or the other. My gut churned and churned as I read about some of the nasty, disgusting things that took place in the name of preserving Judaism.

    I then read history books, some of which were written by Israelis who love their country. These books did not paint the rosy picture that I grew up with. I learned of Deir Yassin, Revisionist Zionism, the Nakba and the Occupation.

    And the picture didn’t get any better after that either. While the main focus of my attention went towards Israeli and Palestinian issues, I learned of the massive problems within Israel as well. The number of reports of discrimination were too high to count; towards Arab Israelis, feminists, gay-rights activists, Bedouin, Russian immigrants, Ethiopian families and migrant workers. I learned of how the ultra right-wing branch of the Hasidic sect’s clout over public affairs have made a mockery of civic life. I learned how we, survivors of the Holocaust, denied entry to those seeking asylum from the genocide taking place in Darfur. Then came the proposed Rotem Bill, which personally insulted me by suggesting that I may not even be Jewish to begin with.

    All done in the name of preserving Judaism.

    So I picked flight. I checked out. I wanted nothing to do with this state. Nothing.

    One day, I found myself reading the New York Times online. You know, back when it was free. While reading the article, I somehow was drawn to a banner ad. (Whoever clicks those, right?) It was an advertisement for the NIForum, a symposium on social justice issues in Israel by the New Israel Fund. I don’t remember why I was drawn to it, but I decided to give these guys a shot and attended the forum.

    At the forum, I discovered a whole society of Jews who, like me, knew as much as I did about Israel. I began to talk with them and found that they also found a way to face these painful truths, while still holding a special place for Israel in their hearts. I learned of the amazing work NIF does by funding a whole assemblage of non-profit groups that strive to make Israel a better place. I learned of ACRI, who’s work as Israel’s premier civil rights group astounds me to this day. I learned of Shatil, which trains various grassroots-based organizations to effectively engage in civic society. I learned of NIF’s unshakable commitment to an Israel that espouses social and economic justice, religious pluralism and respect towards human rights.

    More importantly, I found friends. I found a community. I found a home. I stopped flight and chose fight. I am now a regular attendee of NIF events and currently serve as a member of the New Generations Steering Committee. This summer, I marched in the Celebrate Israel Parade with fellow NIF members, along with some our friends from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA. We walked under the banners of freedom, democracy, justice and peace.

    As a result of all this activity, I have found that living in the solution makes for a better outlook on life. I also have found a new way to articulate my relationship to Israel. I am no longer angry to the point of ambivalence. I now feel empowered to do something about it.

    And that, dear reader, is where you come in. I know you might feel that the Jewish organizations of old have failed you in trying to spare you of Israel’s gritty characteristics and thus feel a reluctance to become engaged with anything that has to do with that small country over yonder. I know you might feel slighted, possibly even betrayed. I know I did.

    But I guarantee you this: if you join us and fight the good fight, you will feel so much better about your relationship to Israel, and the Jewish community at large. You’ll begin to imagine a day where peace and justice will flow through the Holy Land like a mighty stream. You’ll be able to idealize Israel again, though not through the twisted gaze of denial, but by the limitless potential you’ll witness though the work done for a brighter tomorrow.

    That is your challenge. Don’t let Israel fail you. Join us.

    Aaron Werschulz is a member of the New Generations Steering Committee in New York.

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  • Proud of NIF’s Record

    27 October 2011

    27 October 2011, 3:20 pm


    Ben Murane, NIF’s Director of New Generations, offered the following comment in response to this blog post by Richard Silverstein yesterday afternoon. Ben’s response – apparently held for moderation – has not yet been published more than 24 hours later. His efforts to contact Richard got no response. We’re posting Ben’s comment here to ensure that the record is clear:

    No international organization has done more over Israel’s history to achieve equality for Arab Israelis than the New Israel Fund. Richard Silverstein should know that. He has chronicled the excellent work of many of our grantees who seek to address the needs of Arabs in Israel, our law fellows (many of whom have been Israeli Palestinians), and our victories protecting the rights of this vulnerable population.

    Just two weeks ago, we issued a statement signed by more than 1,000 rabbis against the shameful mosque burning in Israel. And contrary to Silverstein’s claims about our guidelines, the vast defunding of grantees he prophesied never materialized. We continue to operate on the democratic ethos that there is room for many opinions within the NIF tent; only organizations that actively work against our principles are excluded from funding.

    NIF’s resources are limited. We make investments where we think we can have the greatest impact. That means that every year we must make difficult decisions about not continuing grants to some groups. Nevertheless our investment in bringing equality to all Israelis – including those of Palestinian heritage – has not waned.

    If you share our vision of equality for all citizens of Israel, then you should attend the New Generations Benefit in New York. The year 2011 was historic for Israel and for the New Israel Fund. 500,000 Israelis stood up for social justice, expressing the values that NIF has embodied in our work for over 30 years. On Nov 2nd, 300+ young professionals in New York will celebrate that same spirit. Five young Israelis – including several who have devoted their activism to Jewish-Arab equality – will be profiled throughout the night.

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  • From the Mailbag -- "Keep Talking!"

    15 November 2011

    With permission from Mary, we're posting below a note we received in response to Daniel's email update regarding the anti-democratic legislation currently under debate in Israel.

     

    Dear Daniel:
     
    I wish every Israeli and every American would read your stirring remarks. I am always moved. When visitors pick up some books from my coffee table, they are often puzzled by my having books on Israel and its people. I am delighted by such queries. it gives me the opportunity to talk about the struggle of Progressives and the difficulties they face daily. Because of your articulate, persuasive arguments, many find the courage to continue to speak out, and work for the solid democratic aims that will gain the freedoms that will benefit all Israelis. Further, their struggles will bring about greater awareness in the U.S. of the importance of a secure, strong Israel.
     
    I wish that I could donate more; I ache to jump in and say, "How can I help?" It is seldom that I wish I were young, instead of 82 and ailing, but while I'm here, I will always tell people that freedom in the U.S. and other democratic countries is dependent, in part, upon the success of the Israeli Progressive movement. Certainly, the future of the Middle Eastern countries--perhaps all of Asia, may hinge on the valiant, determined people inside and outside Israel, Jewish or not. I am Christian, and to be Christian means, to me, an appreciation of the Hebrew tradition, spiritual, historical, and political.
     
    Daniel, KEEP TALKING!!
     
    Shalom.
    Mary Etta Kiefer

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  • No religion does not mean no nationality

    07 October 2011

    A single, equal nationality for all citizens, whatever their religion or lack thereof, as required by the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the state.

    The Jewish year 5772 began with grand tidings: The Tel Aviv District Court recognized author Yoram Kaniuk's right to be registered in the state population rolls as "without religion" rather than "Jewish." In his appeal petition, Kaniuk explained that he would prefer to have his nationality status registered as "Israeli," but that this is not yet possible since he cannot produce a certificate of conversion to another religion.

    Is something wrong with this picture? This confounds the most basic logic: If someone declares himself as being without religion, how can he be asked to prove his conversion to a different religion? Kaniuk, author of "1948," concluded that this important ruling means that he has no religion but is Jewish by nationality.

    Is this indeed the case? How and where is there a Jewish nation that is separate and distinguished from the Jewish religion? Israeli law defines a person as "Jewish" who has a Jewish mother and has no other religion. The condition - being born to a Jewish mother - is a condition set by Jewish law. In other words, the condition is religious in nature. The conclusion that the separation of religion and state has been achieved because an Israeli citizen whose mother was Jewish has been allowed to be classified as having no religion remains a fervent wish only.

    The enormous significance of Judge Gideon Ginat's decision, however, lies not in what it does not say, but rather in what it does say, and in its implications. Kaniuk declared that the court "granted legitimacy" to every person to live in accordance with their conscience. To be more precise, this right - not legitimacy - is the right of every person in Israel, by the force of the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, as the court made abundantly clear.

    That same Basic Law, however, has been brutally and consistently violated by the state since its establishment; all efforts to require the judicial system to enforce their compliance on state institutions (as in the issue of recognition of the Jewish nationality ) have failed, and they are passed from one court to another: from the Supreme Court to the District Court, from the District Court to the Supreme Court and back again.

    The Jerusalem District Court has ruled that the issue of recognizing "Israeli" as a nationality was nonjusticiable; the appeal of this ruling is still pending in the Supreme Court.

    Consequently, Ginat's ruling does not establish the existence of a Jewish nationality as distinct from the Jewish religion. Neither the law, nor simple logic, admits to any such separate existence. The implication of the recent ruling in Kaniuk's case is that any Israeli born to a Jewish mother who declares themselves to be religion-less is also classified as nationality-less.

    Is this outcome intolerable? Absolutely, unless and until the court orders the state's executive branch to recognize the existence of an Israeli nationality: a single, equal nationality for all citizens, whatever their religion or lack thereof, as required by the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the state.

    It should be noted that the state itself recognizes the Israeli nationality in a single document only: The Israeli passport. As the saying goes, be a man outside and a Jew at home. The enlightened view of Judaism does not distinguish between being a Jewish person and being a person.

    This article was first published in Ha'aretz. The writer, Yoella Har-Shefi, is an attorney and mediator.



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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014