Israeli Civil Society under Pressure

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The Knesset

Israeli Civil Society under Pressure

The “Transparency Bill” currently promoted by the Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, stipulates the increase of transparency with regard to funds flowing from overseas to civil society actors in Israel. Instead, however, it serves to further promote the ongoing delegitimization process of progressive NGOs in the country through a public shaming process that depicts the latter as minions of foreign governments; special emphasis is dedicated to organizations that actively seek to overturn the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. The proposed bill, should it pass, will hamper the activities of progressive civil society actors in Israel and aggravate Jerusalem’s closest international allies.

Current State of Affairs

The NGO-Bill, also misleadingly referred to as the “Transparency Bill”, has just successfully passed its first significant legislation milestone after having been approved in the first reading at the Knesset on 08 February 2016. The vote on the bill was postponed several times after it was approved by the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation on 27 December 2015. 

According to the suggested bill, nongovernmental organizations, whose main funding (over 50%) stems from foreign public funds (Including the EU and the UN), will be required to mention the list of their donors in any of their official publications. According to the original draft of the bill, the representatives of the aforementioned organizations would have been furthermore required to wear a badge whenever they tread a public institution, indicating their names and the identity of the entities funding their organizations; however, it was eventually decided to drop the latter clause from the proposed draft.

The bill prides itself of increasing transparency regarding funding sources of Israeli civil society organizations, whereas in reality it only targets such institutions whose funding sources are already fully accessible (and monitored), while leaving organizations, whose financial channels are kept in secrecy, untouched. The reason for the partial impact of the bill lies in the fact that it only applies to organizations whose activities rely on foreign public funds, and not to funding provided by private donors. Given the funding topography in the country, in which left-leaning organizations are mainly supported by former, whereas right-leaning organizations are largely supported by the latter, the differentiated approach, as manifested in the bill, leads de-facto to only left-leaning organizations being covered by the legislation.

Given that the bill stipulates the increase of transparency, and not the marking of government-critical organizations, one may rightfully ask as to the obvious discrepancy between the bill's declared purpose on the one hand, and its selective formulation that applies solely to funding sources that are already transparent, while leaving the discrete ones out of its scope, on the other.

The Argument behind the Bill

The argumentation in favor of scrutinizing organizations supported by foreign public funding in the name of transparency while ignoring donations from private donors was clearly explained by the current chief promoter of the law, Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked:

“A country that wants to defend its sovereignty needs to set clear limits on the intervention of foreign agents. The invasion into another country’s public space, blatantly intervening in another country’s internal affairs amounts to an infringement on the latter’s sovereignty, most certainly when such an intervention is not transparent. (…) these are NGOs that presume themselves to represent the Israeli interest, but in fact are funded by foreign governments that are using them according to their world view”.

According to this line of argumentation, the aspired transparency bill does not attempt to promote transparency as a value in itself, but rather serves as a tool in order to safeguard Israel’s sovereignty from external (governmental) interventions in its internal public sphere and protect the country’s democracy from disproportionate representation of other countries’ interests.  

Breaking this argument down to its two fundamental premises is crucial in order to understand the motivation behind the proposed law:

  1. NGOs that rely on foreign government funding do not represent a legitimate Israeli voice, but rather function as proxies/lobbyists that promote other governments’ interests (and are therefore not to be trusted).
  2. Only NGOs funded by foreign governments are to be suspected. In a world that is allegedly run by nation-states, only foreign governments can infringe on the sovereignty of a given state. Therefore, organizations funded by private donors, regardless of how influential they may be, do not call for inspection and are accordingly not included in the proposed bill.

Needless to say both aforementioned premises are fallacious and misleading:

  1. Israeli Civil Society organizations backed by foreign public funding are no proxies/lobbyists of foreign governments:

The attempt to depict Civil Society organizations that receive public funding from abroad as proxies or agents of foreign governments is factually wrong and only seeks to delegitimize them in order to marginalize their impact in the country.

The organizations in question apply for funding from a myriad of sources, among which are also grants from foreign governments. Securing a governmental grant does not bestow the foreign government with any decision authority as to the operations of the supported organization.

Hence, the organizations in question cannot be regarded as messengers, proxies or agents of foreign governments; rather they consist of dedicated groups of Israeli citizens committed to a local agenda pertaining to their community, be it an environmental agenda, women's rights, marginalized populations or, yes, also the termination of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians (a position that is consistently supported by well over 50% of the Israeli public). The donations pledged to these organizations by foreign governments do not render the Israeli NGOs any less patriotic or committed to promoting the interests of the Israeli society.

The NGOs supported by foreign public funding are also no lobbyists; rather they seek support from organizations, some of which foreign governments, with which a convergence of interests and shared values is established. This constellation differs greatly from the framework in which a lobbyist is hired by an organization or a government in order to push forward the latter’s agenda.

Take the Heinrich Böll Foundation for example: The foundation, which maintains close ties with the German Greens Party, and relies on funds from the German government, works with well over 100 partner projects in approximately 60 countries worldwide, including in Israel. Through its cooperation with its extensive network of global partners, the Heinrich Böll Foundation strives to promote democracy and human rights worldwide, to take action to prevent the destruction of the global ecosystem, advance equality between women and men, secure peace through conflict prevention in crisis zones, and defend the freedom of individuals against excessive state and economic power.

In Israel, the foundation’s work concentrates, among other things, on supporting Israeli organizations whose work is dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability, equal gender representation in public institutions and more. Claiming that an Israeli grassroots organization that is dedicated to the promotion of women participation in the public sphere, is nothing short of a proxy of the German government, only because it is supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, is absurd.

  1. Distinction between public and private funding in the legislation is two-faced

Suppose that one follows the argumentation line suggested by the proponents of the bill, namely that the latter has nothing to do with a deliberate crack-down on government critical civil society organizations. What other explanation is there to the selective nature of a bill that calls for more transparency, yet deliberately leaves out private donors?

Is it because only public funding is directed towards political activities that create a disproportionate balance of foreign political interests in the country? This is clearly not the case – a significant amount of private funding flows to political organizations in the country, and unlike public funding, it is not transparent and not being monitored. Take the Right-Wing NGO Im Tirzu for example: The organization, which recently launched a series of campaigns depicting left-leaning NGOs and Israeli culture figures as moles of European governments and traitors, had received NIS 6.83 million between the years 2006-2013 in private donations from foreign entities; despite its accusations of progressive NGOs acting secretly as agents of foreign interests, the organization itself conceals the sources of the majority of its funding: only NIS 860,000 (12% of the organization’s foreign funding) can be traced back to the donors, whereas the vast majority (88%) remains clandestine.

Perhaps is the distinction then justified because of the degree of clout that the funding entities possess? One might think that a private person cannot be as influential or powerful as a foreign government; however, also here, we learn that private donors can surpass the influence of states – eventually it boils down to the size of the grant and not the overall financial capacity of the entity. Sheldon Adelson’s proposal to US President Barack Obama to completely finance the cost of Iron Dome system to Israel at the modest cost of USD 1 billion drives this point home.

Is the distinction perhaps justified because the governments that support the Israeli organizations are in a state of conflict with the Israeli state and seek to undermine it from within with the help of local proxies? Hardly - the foreign governments in question make for some of Israel’s closest allies in the international arena. Moreover, it seems that the Israeli state itself has very few problems in receiving funding from these governments, when it comes to cutting edge weapon systems, scientific agreements etc.

It seems that despite the generous attempt to logically follow the line of argumentation of the discrepancy ridden bill, the only logical explanation for the exclusion of the private funded organizations from a legislation that prides itself of promoting transparency, lies in the identity of the organizations in question. The mistrust instigated towards NGOs that receive funding from foreign governments by such legislation is therefore the primary effect and probably purpose of the initiators of the bill.

The argument behind the bill is misleading and inciting

The proposed legislation employs the term “transparency” as a justification to crack down on a selected group of organizations that are not to the current government’s liking. It serves as a further building bloc in the delegitimization process against left-leaning Israeli NGOs that has been rapidly unfolding over the past 5 years by depicting the latter as marionettes of foreign agents and consequently as immediate suspects of treason; it employs a two-faced logic as it does not target organizations that receive funding from non-governmental sources under the somewhat lazy argument that private donors are not foreign states and therefore do not infringe on the state’s sovereignty (as if the latter could only be practiced in a state-to-state relationship); it is furthermore two-faced because it treats Israel’s closest allies as potential enemies.

The law, if passed, will deal a blow to Israel’s democratic civil-society and send a chilling signal to Israel’s allies in the West.