Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has tabled a bill that may well stifle, if not delegitimize, a precious gift — political dissent in Israel.
The bill, known as the NGO Law, should be permanently shelved for the sake of Israeli democracy.
Sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, it would require non-governmental organizations in Israel to disclose funding from foreign countries.
Defending the bill, Netanyahu has said, “I don’t understand how a demand for greater transparency is anti-democratic. In a democracy, we need to know who is funding these organizations — from the right, the left …”
In a bid to deflect criticism of it, Netanyahu recently announced an amendment not requiring NGO representatives to wear name tags while in the Knesset. But Netanyahu’s disengenuous attempt to sugar-coat the bill has not mollified critics.
As he well knows, it will affect the left rather than the right.
Left-wing NGOs, composed of civil rights, human rights and pro-peace groups, receive the bulk of their funds from foreign governments. By contrast, right-wing NGOs are funded by private donors like the American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and conservative organizations that support Israel’s settlements in the West Bank (which should be part of a future Palestinian state).
The net result is clear. Only progressive NGOs — which challenge the policies and agenda of Netanyahu’s government — will be affected by the bill. Right-wing NGOs, which back Netanyahu to the hilt, will not be impacted by the bill by one iota.
That’s patently unfair.
As Canadian Friends of Peace Now says in a newsletter, the aim of the bill is to brand left-wing NGOs as agents of foreign governments. “In short, the bill is about shaming, stigmatizing and silencing. The government wants to silence those that expose the truth about its destructive policies that are destroying hope for a future two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu and Shaked both claim that the bill resembles the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists representing foreign interests to publicly disclose funding from abroad.
The analogy is incorrect, as U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby has pointed out.
“As a general matter, U.S. law imposes no limits, restrictions or transparency requirements on the receipt of foreign funding by NGOs operating in the United States,” he said. “The draft Israeli law would target NGOs simply because they are funded principally by foreign government entities. That is not how the Foreign Agents Registration Act works.”
The American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, has also added his voice to the debate. Shapiro, who recently discussed the bill with Shaked, has expressed “concerns” about it.
In a statement released by the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Shapiro said that “a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.”
The bill, he warned, could have a “chilling effect on NGO activities” in Israel.
The Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, agrees with Shapiro’s clear-eyed appraisal. “The cabinet decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world,” he declared.
The bill has reared its ugly head at a time when left-of-center writers and intellectuals in Israel have come under fire. Im Tirtzu, a McCarthyist outfit aligned with the nationalist/religious camp, recently likened three of Israel’s most famous novelists, David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, to “moles in culture.”
So outrageous a calumny was it that even Netanyahu rejected the charge and Im Tirtzu was forced to apologize, compelling its director, Matan Peleg, to leave his post. But Im Tirtzu’s ugly campaign was symptomatic of the country’s deep political and religious divisions and the toxic political climate that prevails in contemporary Israel.
This ill-conceived, ill-advised and misguided bill will exacerbate these tensions and set Israel down the path of intolerance and chauvinism.
Kill the bill.