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Badges and labels

A proposed bill requiring NGO's to disclose foreign funding is an attack on the left and on democracy

Israel has launched an all-out campaign against the publication of the European directives requiring the labeling of settlement products at precisely the same time that the Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, has circulated the text of a government bill compelling representatives of nonprofit organizations receiving a majority of their funding from foreign governments (especially the United States and members of the European Union) to wear badges proclaiming their sources of support. How is it possible to justify opposition to marking products just as Israel is poised to tag in law some of its very own citizens? The truth is that it simply isn’t, and that is the best possible reason to stop this folly before it undermines what’s left of Israel’s human and democratic face.

Shaked’s new legislative initiative is the latest in a series of proposals raised during the past five years with a view to singling out, discrediting, delegitimizing, de-funding and ultimately destroying Israel’s human rights and civil rights community (and with it, the grassroots associations that keep alive the struggle for fair treatment and the dynamic of criticism so essential to democratic vibrancy). In early 2011, Avigdor Liberman sought to conduct a parliamentary probe of human rights organizations, arguing that “they are terrorist organizations that abet terror.” Although this initiative was voted down in the Knesset, neither Liberman’s party (Yisrael Beytenu) nor its allies on the right — especially Jewish Home and the Likud — have given up on their systematic efforts to constrain those groups dedicated to assuring Israel’s adherence to universal human norms.

Ayelet Shaked has been particularly active in this regard. Before her election to the Knesset she, along with the head of her party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, founded and ran the MyIsrael social network which stood at the forefront of the campaign against human rights groups in the country. In the last Knesset, she authored two bills which sought to heavily tax organizations funded by foreign governments (both were voted down). Now she is giving formal governmental backing to a particularly pernicious version of anti-NGO legislation originally tabled by her party colleague, Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich (a variation was proposed by another member, Yinon Magal).

This official support is being justified, at least on the surface, as a vital corollary of good government: transparency. According to its proponents, tagging certain NGO activists is no more than conforming to the minimal requirements of openness required of any self-respecting, duly elected, democratic government.

This somewhat disingenuous argument, however, doesn’t stand up to any factual or logical test. In the first instance, a law requiring full disclosure of foreign government funding already exists (passed in 2011, it requires all donations from foreign political entities to be reported immediately to the NGO Registrar and to be displayed prominently on websites). The new bill is tediously redundant and — except for the marking of NGO activists — totally superfluous. Second, it does not help to explain why more than one billion euros of European funding for Israeli research and development to universities and industries is permissible (and even highly desirable), while support for civil groups, no less significant for the promotion of a thriving society, is considered brash interference in Israel’s internal affairs.

In the same vein, what is now being dubbed the “Transparency Law” actually obscures: it distinguishes between private and public external funding: the former, which sustains right-wing organizations, institutions and parties, is not subject to any public oversight; the latter is being scrutinized in excruciating detail when it is channeled to organizations that do not meet with the approval of those in power.

No small measure of cynicism, if not downright hypocrisy, therefore accompanies what may be more appropriately called the “Tagging Law.” This is hardly mitigated by the claim that the demand that foreign agents visibly identify themselves is common to other democracies (a US law which requires those receiving funding from outside sources to register as foreign agents has been in effect for years). What proponents of the current Israeli initiative neglect to mention is that the American bill requires recipients of private as well as public external funding to declare themselves as such (or, for that matter, that the real model for the proposed Israeli legislation is a bill put into effect in Putin’s Russia barely two years ago to quash human rights advocates).

More serious attention, therefore, needs to be given to the deeper reasons presented by Justice Minister Shaked in an effort to explain the proposed curbs on NGO activity. One main justification suggests that tagging such organizations as B’Tselem, Adalah and Breaking the Silence is essential to safeguarding Israel’s democracy: “The blatant interference of foreign governments in internal matters of the State of Israel with money is an unprecedented, widespread phenomenon that violates all rules and norms in relations between democratic countries.”

Such a claim, these days, is at best spurious. Prime Minister Netanyahu certainly did not abstain from involvement in the American debate on the Iran deal (or, for that matter, on US electoral matters). Nor has his American benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, distanced himself from internal Israeli affairs.

This claim also exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the place of civil society in democracies. Civic associations perform essential democratic roles: they limit the power of the state; they give voice to the concerns of the weak, the dispossessed and the marginalized; they pluralize, by their very existence, the public landscape; and, perhaps most importantly, they constantly remind those in power that deep democracies have an ongoing obligation to promote the civil liberties of all their citizens. Working democracies support civil societies and, yes, do so internationally as well as domestically.

Since the democratic justification for circumscribing human rights organizations does not hold water, it is hardly surprising that Shaked has fallen back on nationalistic rationales: “Financial support from foreign countries to NGOs acting in the internal Israeli sphere destabilizes the sovereignty of the State of Israel and calls into question the authority of the government elected by the public.” But here too, the Minister’s logic fails her. She not only forgets that associations she supports benefit from far greater foreign funding than the groups she wishes to debunk. More to the point, she is utterly blind to the contribution that Israeli civic organizations continue to make to Israel’s fast waning global legitimacy.

So, given these contradictions, what then can possibly explain the present initiative? Clearly the answer lies squarely in the political domain: targeting human and civil rights groups — hardly proponents of the present government — is a way of placating the right margins of the ruling coalition and subduing rebellious voices in its ranks. This is yet another patently desperate move designed to maintain a faltering coalition at all costs.

Using power to silence opponents through legislation is, above all, a sign of governmental weakness. If the bill forcing civil society activists to wear badges actually passes, it will contribute directly to the present government’s determination to undermine Israel’s failing democratic order (although it won’t succeed in diminishing the ongoing determination of Israel’s homegrown democrats). It will also dishonor the memory of millions of Jews humiliated and later killed by the Jewish badge barely two generations ago. A country that claims to be a democratic state and the homeland of the Jewish people must not, under any circumstances, tag its own citizens; if it does, it cannot expect its products not to be labeled for dismissing the fundamental rights of those under its rule.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.