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Stepping Forward – on Israel’s new “Transparency Law” on NGO funding (Arlene Kushner)

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July 13, 2016

Our steps here in Israel are not always as smooth as we might like.  But more often than not, when we stumble, we right ourselves (pun unintended) and keep going.
A vote that passed in the Knesset Monday night represents a significant step for Israel.  It has been a long time in coming, but what is called the “Transparency Law” has now been approved.
This legislation – authored by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Heyehudi) – requires all NGOs that receive more than 50% of their funds from foreign governments or governmental agencies, or political entities such as the EU or the UN, to report this fact each year to the NGO Registrar in the Justice Ministry, which will publish a list of said NGOs.
“Those NGOs that are on the list must note this fact on their websites, on any advocacy publications readily available to the public, as well as in their communications with public servants and elected officials.

“They are also required to inform the chair of a Knesset committee that they are on the list whenever they appear before said committee.”

Critics of the bill charge, first, that it is “biased” because almost all of the roughly two-dozen NGOs that will fall under the purview of this new legislation are left wing organizations.  They say that right wing groups should also be required to report donations from individuals and private foundations outside Israel. (Very few, if any, foreign governments or their agencies are remotely interested in supporting groups that promote such issues as our rights to the land.)
This charge provides me with an opportunity to explain the outrageous situation that has prevailed here until now:
Governments of foreign nations – primarily nations in Europe – and international political entities such as the EU have an agenda with regard to Israel that is decidedly and aggressively left-wing.  Their interest is in weakening Israel and promoting Palestinian Arab predominance. Thus do they donate considerable largesse to NGOs registered in Israel that embrace their political orientation.
In simple terms, this is meddling.  There are diplomatic protocols that ought be followed – diplomatic channels that should be employed – if a foreign government seeks to protest policies of the Israeli government, the government of a sovereign state.  But in supporting NGOs that are ostensibly Israeli (because they are Israeli-registered), these governments have been attempting to circumvent the diplomatic channels and interfere directly from inside Israel.
When the Israeli-registered NGO B’Tselem, to cite just one example, has taken a particular stand on an issue, the Israeli populace might reasonably have assumed that this was an Israeli position being promoted out of conviction by Israelis running a domestic organization that espoused a particular domestic agenda.
Once the fact is made public that the majority of B’Tselem’s funds come from foreign governmental sources, it substantially changes perceptions: Can this be seen as a genuine domestic position that B’Tselem is promoting, or does B’Tselem reflect a foreign agenda?  It defies common sense to imagine that B’Tselem (or any of the other organizations that will be on the list) accepts large sums of money from foreign donors without being mindful of what those donors expect in the way of advocacy and political action.
What is more, the ability of an organization such as B’Tselem to advance certain positions is vastly enhanced by the infusion of very large sums of money from foreign governments.  Whether it is in the hiring of lawyers or lobbyists, or doing advertising and promotion, the foreign-funded NGOs have a distinct advantage.  (As someone who works with right wing organizations, I can attest to this anecdotally: right wing groups consistently find they are hurting for funds – whatever the donations of individuals and foundations – and are keenly aware of an inequity that is at work.)
Justice Minister Shaked, in defending the legislation last night, said, “Until now, we accepted [foreign intervention] with bowed heads. Our heads are bowed no longer.”
While MK Robert Ilatov, celebrating the passage of the legislation, said:
“It is unthinkable that these organizations receive millions of shekels annually and are working against the existence of Israel, promote foreign goals while unregulated and uncontrolled.”
Then there is the charge that the bill is “undemocratic.”  But quite the opposite is true because true Israeli democracy is fostered when foreign governmental interference is exposed.
The point here is that all this bill does is require transparency.  It does not prevent NGOs that receive foreign funds from continuing to operate!
Prime Minister Netanyahu, speaking in support of the bill prior to its passage, noted, tellingly, that it “has been met with complaints from those who usually support transparency.”
The legislation, he declared, “is right, democratic and necessary”: It is meant to create greater transparency regarding the activities of foreign governments inside of Israel.
The JPost reported, in the article above, that: “European countries pressured individual Israeli lawmakers to vote against it.”  That sort of outrageous interference with our democratic process, in and of itself, provides solid indication of what we are dealing with.
It is my distinct impression that foreign governments imagine they can meddle here as they would never dream of doing in other places.  When we expose this, we are holding our heads high.
One last observation regarding the left here in Israel, which feels deeply threatened by this bill.  During debate in the Knesset before the vote was taken, Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog, head of the Zionist Union and leader of the opposition, charged that the law:
“symbolizes the budding fascism that is rising and flourishing in Israeli society,” which makes a “mockery” of the “right to organize, which is a sacred founding principle of a democratic society.”
HUH?  Budding fascism fostered by transparency?  This is what we call “shtuyote” – nonsense. The bill does not remotely hinder “the right to organize.”  It does not address this at all. The only “right” being addressed by the bill is the “right” to take large sums of foreign government money without letting the public or the Knesset know.
Did Herzog know full well that his was a nonsensically fallacious charge?  If he did, it would suggest he was out and out dishonest, invoking a “sacred founding principle” just for effect.   Or did he actually believe this blather?  This would tend to suggest that he may have feathers between his ears, where gray matter should be. Neither alternative is reassuring.
I mention this to caution my readers to think carefully before accepting as true various charges being leveled at the legislation.
And we have criticism from the US on this bill, as well.  Naturally.  State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed concern “not just about free expression but association and dissent.

“We are deeply concerned that this law can have a chilling effect on the activities that these worthwhile organizations are trying to do.”


Did we ask for his opinion?

The organizations that will be affected by the new law are as free to dissent and express themselves as they ever were.  It’s just that now everyone will know who is supporting their work.  If this knowledge has the effect of “chilling” public response to the messages of these groups, well… perhaps that is precisely how it should be.
In point of fact, a bipartisan Senate report, just released, exposes the fact that the V15 campaign to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 was indirectly funded by US State Department dollars.  While it was not overtly illegal – as it was channeled, this use of US funds is certainly unsettling.
Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin said Tuesday that the Senate’s findings were proof “of how correct the laws of transparency in foreign state funding of NGOs is.”


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