Israel is, and must remain, a thriving democracy in every aspect of its society. This includes upholding individual rights to freedom of expression movement, and assembly within the boundaries of the law. Even questioning the fundamental nature of these rights should be seen as shaking the very foundations of any democracy.
So how is it possible that democratic Israel finds itself in the midst of an international debate over its civil society?
On March 22, the Knesset passed a law that will cancel national-service positions in non-profits that receive the majority of their funding from foreign governments. Just days prior to this, Haaretz reported on Minister of Interior Security and Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan’s plans to create a citizens’ database listing those who support BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) campaigns against Israel. In response, Erdan said he intends to only follow “central activists” who work on such delegitimization campaigns and emphasized the need to follow their activities.
At the beginning of March, the Knesset passed a bill that allows the government to deny entrance visas to foreign nationals who have publicly called for a boycott of Israel or who work for an organization that openly promotes BDS campaigns.
These and other similar moves taken by the government have sparked a wave of criticism in Israel and abroad. The criticism feeds an internal Israeli public discourse regarding NGOs that has become partisan and completely polarized on both ends of the political spectrum.
To be sure, drafting policies targeting an individual’s personal political views is in no way the answer to safeguarding Israel’s democracy. But more importantly, it also fails to address the core issue at hand: facts are more powerful than any political sanction.
And here are some facts. Many organizations manipulate human rights through the use of “resistance” rhetoric, blurring the lines between violence and nonviolence, denigrating security concerns, and legitimizing attacks against civilians. These NGOs are funded by the governments of Israel’s allies in Europe. In so doing, these organizations and their narratives are being granted the establishment’s approval and legitimacy.
One such example is NGO PASSIA registered in Israel, that called the wave of stabbings that began in October 2015 a “youth uprising” and refers to Baha Eleyan – one of two terrorists who boarded a bus in Jerusalem in October 2015 armed with a gun and a knife killed three and injured seven – as a “Palestinian martyr.” Despite this, PASSIA is currently running a project together with the German public-benefit federal enterprise, GIZ.
Another European example is the Oxford Research Group (ORG). Dr. Husam Zomlot, part of ORG’s Middle East Team and co-founder and coordinator of its Palestine Strategy Group, claimed in an interview on BBC (BBC Interview, 20 Aug 2014 from 39:21) that Israel “fabricated” the beheading of James Foley “like they are fabricating the story of the Holocaust, that it happened in Europe.” ORG also published a strategy report that supports “resistance in all its forms including the growing global movement for boycott sanctions and divestment.” ORG received ₤197,820 from the Norwegian government for “Israel and Palestine Projects” in 2015, roughly 43% of ORG’s entire income for that year.
It is the institutionalization of violent narratives that is alarming, and not simply an individual’s personal political views. We ought to find ways to engage with our allies in Europe and find common ground through dialogue if the goal is to advance any peace prospects in the region.
Our experience working with Europeans shows that constructive bilateral dialogue, which reveals the true colors of these NGOs to their funders, can easily render controversial Israeli legislation redundant.
Initiatives such as a bill that was passed in the Swiss lower house of Parliament on March 8 should lead the way in how Israel can find common ground with the funders of NGOs, even on controversial issues. MP Christian Imark, who originally proposed the bill, put it best in his speech before the vote: “How can someone disapprove of barring partners that are racist, antisemitic or inciting? No person understands this. Switzerland does not only have a great responsibility to its taxpayers, but also as a neutral country. If our country undertakes foreign policy one-sidedly, we will never achieve peace. On the contrary, we will only fan the flames of the conflict until blood will be on our own hands.”
The true challenges lie on both ends of the partnership. Israel must show leadership in revealing the facts regarding organizations and their activities, instead of defaulting to policies that only further fuel the discourse and are exploited to isolate the State. Likewise, our European partners would be better advised to carefully select and inspect, on a rolling basis, who they partner with in trying to broker peace and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.