In a previous series of articles, I was referring to the cohort of Israeli ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’ (NGOs) funded – directly and indirectly – by foreign (mostly European) governments. We are not dealing with pennies or eurocents here, but with massive finance: according to NGO Monitor (an organisation aiming to research and publicise the extent and influence of such funding)
“European governments provide at least $100 million annually to Palestinian, Israeli, and international NGOs that utilize these funds for anti-Israel campaigns and promote BDS under a façade of promoting human rights, peace, and capacity building.”
In fact, such enormous funding is without parallel. NGO Monitor provides the following example:
“in 2014, civil society in Israel received €3,754,133 from EIDHR, and adding NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza €5,630,323 – the majority of which are related to the conflict. In contrast, Ukraine – a deeply flawed democracy with a population roughly five times the size of Israel’s and at the time (2014) a war zone affected by severe human rights violations – received just €3,400,575.”
EIDHR stands for ‘European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights’ – this is just one of the many channels through which money is distributed.
This is why I ended a recent article by stating
“As a democracy, Israel should be (and very much is!) open to criticism. But it should not be a push-over. The most basic tenet of democracy is, after all, that it is the people that makes the decisions. ‘The people’ as in ‘those who live, pay taxes and vote in that country’. To preserve that basic tenet, a democracy has the right (nay, has the duty!) to defend itself – not just against the enemies who want to physically overcome it, but also against the false friends who attempt to undermine it. It is high time Israel told Europeans, in no uncertain terms, to mind their own business. And their own (rather heavy!) conscience.”
Well, I don’t know if the powers that be in Israel read my humble articles, but someone decided to do something. The country’s parliament (the Knesset) has just passed a law amendment requiring NGOs that depend on foreign governments for more than 50% of their annual funding to disclose that fact on their official reports, adverts and formal communication with elected officials.
The law was proposed by the Justice Minister, supported by the government and lambasted in harsh terms by the opposition. So far, so good – that’s the role of opposition in a democracy. The amendment has also been attacked, naturally, by the NGOs in question. No surprise there, either.
But – here comes the issue – it has also been criticised by foreign powers: the Obama Administration and the European Union. Both have cried ‘gewald yidn!’ (or the English equivalent), declaring the new law a threat to Israel’s democracy. If I had a dollar for each time I heard that Israel’s democracy is in mortal danger – I’d be a millionaire. Last time I checked, the country was still very much the only democracy in the Middle East – so I guess it has somehow managed to duck those grave dangers.
But hey, one never knows… So I thought I’d look into the issue, to check whether the Israeli democracy was really on its last legs.
To start with, I read the proposed law in its latest version; I know, I know: I’m such a sad person! But at least, now I can assure you: the text does not declare any NGO illegal; it does not force them to disband – or else; in fact, it does not impose any restriction whatsoever to the NGOs’ activity. All it does is ask them to state clearly, in their public and official communications, that they are funded by foreign governments – and who those governments are. But only if that constitutes the majority of their total funding. If it is, for instance, 49.9% from foreign governments and the balance from non-governmental sources (either Israeli or foreign), then they are not required to declare anything.
So what’s the big deal? you’ll ask. How does a mere requirement to disclose information constitute a threat to democracy? Well, according to the law’s critics, the new amendment discriminates between left wing and right wing NGOs. For instance, one such critic – an organisation called Americans for Peace Now (APN), claims that
“The bill requires no transparency from right-wing groups – who are promoting an agenda that lines up comfortably with that of the current government – although they are massively funded by foreign donors. As such, the clear objective of this bill is to enhance the hegemony of this government’s narrative by silencing dissent.”
Worried, I read the law again. It says nothing about left, right or centre: it refers to all NGOs, with no regard to their political agenda (or lack thereof).
So I turned again to Americans for Peace Now, for an explanation. Here it is, from the horse’s mouth: the bill, they say
“require disclosure […] only with respect to foreign government funding (which goes almost entirely to progressive civil society NGOs and NGOs working on peace and human rights)…”
It does not, on the other hand, require disclosure
“with respect to foreign individuals (who provide massive amounts of funding for right-wing NGOs).”
You got that? It’s not the Israeli law that discriminates between left-wing and right-wing NGOs. It’s actually the foreign governments that make that difference: they provide funding only to left-wing NGOs, but not to right-wing NGOs. Err… why??
As an aside, it seems to me that Americans for Peace Now have committed a bit of a Freudian mistake in their passionate argumentation. I don’t know about you, but their reference to “left-wing NGOs” and “right-wing NGOs” kinda grates on my ear. Aren’t charities supposed to be apolitical?? Are these human rights organisations, or political outfits? If the latter (a conclusion that the left-wing/right wing classification inexorably leads to), then why do foreign governments bankroll political movements – of a particular tinge – in a fellow democracy?
Still, what about APN’s basic argument? Why does the law refer only to funding by foreign governments and does not apply also to donations by foreign individuals? Well, individuals are fundamentally different from states and governments. As an individual, I can give money to whoever I please; it’s my private money. Not so a government; it operates with public money. Which is why an individual is entitled (in law and in practice) to privacy; conversely, governments are required (in law and in practice) to exhibit transparency and be open to public scrutiny. Hence, there is a reasonable argument that a requirement to publish names of individual donors might spook them; it would amount to an infringement of their privacy. Not so in the case of governments, to which the opposite principle applies: the duty of transparency, rather than the right to privacy.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary (an Irish national, i.e. a foreign individual as far as the UK is concerned) is reputed to have used his own and his company’s money in support of the ‘Remain’ campaign. ‘Leave’ campaigners must have resented that, but nobody said it’s illegal. But what if the government of Ireland (a foreign country with interests not necessarily aligned with those of the UK) would have done the same? What if – say – Israel’s government would have donated tens of millions of pounds to organisations promoting Brexit?
There is another issue, too. See, I always thought (and most people do, I’d guess) that ‘NGO’ stands for Non-Governmental Organization. But how ‘non-governmental’ is an organisation if the majority of its funds come from governments? At the very least, the public is entitled to know that this or that particular Non-Governmental Organization is… rather governmental in terms of its finances.
Americans for Peace Now disagrees, however:
“this bill clearly portrays Israeli civil society organizations – organizations that obey the law and work to advance an agenda that differs from the current government’s worldview – as ‘foreign agents’ which are disloyal to the state, which represent foreign interests, and which act to undermine the state and its institutions. This bill does not only seek to stigmatize these progressive groups but also seeks to humiliate them by demanding that they stigmatize themselves through slapping a ‘warning label’ on their public communications.”
Well, “Israeli civil society organisations” have every right “to advance an agenda that differs from the current government’s worldview”. Nobody disputes that right – I certainly don’t! What raises eyebrows, however, is the fact that the majority of their funds are contributed by foreign governments. One would think that “Israeli civil society organisations” would be able to raise most of the funds needed for their operation from within that civil society. Moreover, since the fact of the matter is that they don’t, that they are mainly bankrolled by foreign governments, why should that fact be concealed from the “Israeli civil society” – i.e. the Israeli public and its elected representatives?
Since Israel is a democracy, “Israeli civil society organisations” can (and should!) question government policies; they have the right to criticise them and claim that they are bad for the country. But those organisations cannot at the same time demand to be themselves above scrutiny. Doesn’t the Israeli public have the right to question their wisdom – and, yes, even their loyalty? After all, foreign governments – even friendly ones – are driven by their own national interests, which are not necessarily aligned with and may even drastically diverge from Israeli interests. Shouldn’t the Israeli public be given the tools to question and decide for themselves whether a particular organisation claiming to speak for the “Israeli civil society” really does?
Furthermore, if those “Israeli civil society organisations” consist of “progressive groups” of loyal patriots “that obey the law”, then what do they have to hide? How does disclosing the source of their funding – in a format easy to grasp by the public – “stigmatise” them? Since when does the truth (nobody disputes that it is the truth) “humiliate”??
The lady doth protest too much, methinks! It would seem that somewhere, somewhere deep inside, those “Israeli civil society organisations” feel that what they do, while legal, is not exactly… shall we say… cool. It may be kosher, but it stinks.
If that is how they feel, I think they are right. In fact, a similar conclusion has recently been reached by a bipartisan US Senate inquiry. It found that the Obama Administration (through the Department of State) funded an NGO called One Voice. In turn, that NGO used the funds to campaign (through an “Israeli civil society organisation”, of course) against Benjamin Netanyahu, during the latest parliamentary elections in Israel (2015). The Senate inquiry found that the transaction had been legal – no US law had been infringed; it just wasn’t ethical, fair or democratic. In other words – kosher, but stinking to high heaven. Both the Democrat and the Republican Party co-chairs criticised the Administration, with the latter stating
“The State Department ignored warning signs and funded a politically active group in a politically sensitive environment with inadequate safeguards. It is completely unacceptable that US taxpayer dollars were used to build a political campaign infrastructure that was deployed — immediately after the grant ended — against the leader of our closest ally in the Middle East.”
Sorry, “Israeli civil society organisations” – but I don’t see at all how the new law is undemocratic. That doesn’t mean I have no problem with it – I do. I suspect it’ll be ineffective. Money is fungible and it is all too easy to move it around and disguise its sources. As I’ve explained elsewhere, charities such as Oxfam get a huge chunk of their budgets from the British government and the various purses it controls. So when Oxfam funds – say – Breaking the Silence (as it did), is that to be counted as ‘foreign government funding’ or not? How about if Oxfam funds a charity which bankrolls a programme with another charity which pays a third charity to commission a report from “Israeli civil society organisation” Breaking the Silence? You get my drift…
Legislation is a good thing. Over-legislation isn’t. And when it comes to foreign interference, legislation is often toothless and weak. It is defensive. And – as Israeli soldiers know and Israeli footballers unfortunately don’t – offence is often the best defence. The way to put an end to foreign – especially European – subversion is not to protest and legislate, but simply to establish, quietly but effectively, that two can play at this game.
Take for instance Spain. The country is a major donor to “Israeli civil society organisations” – including extreme-left fringe outfits such as ICAHD. Israel can return the compliment by providing funds to secessionist movements… err… civil society organisations in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Not directly, of course – but through a charity funding another charity…
France is another country that seems to care deeply for Israel’s civil society. Certainly more than it does for its own Roma population, which faces widespread, systematic racism, discrimination and even persecution by the authorities. Morality will surely oblige Israel to fund civil society organisations fighting France’s rampant antiziganism.
And so on… Don’t worry, this won’t cost a lot: political activists are cheap – one can get a dozen for the cost of an honest worker. And they can generate a lot of noise for the buck. Once a few European countries get a taste of their own medicine, I’m sure that brutal, ‘anti-democratic’ legislation will become unnecessary. A gentleman’s agreement among fellow democracies is a much better solution.
Because Israel’s democracy is indeed under threat. Not from Knesset’s legislation, of course; but from the anti-democratic, subversive practices of some ‘friendly foreign governments’. Well, every stick has two ends; and old Hillel said it well:
“What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor.”
Those ‘friendly governments’ could do with a reminder. After all, what are friends for??