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The primary role of civil society is to "give voice" to ordinary citizens and ensure that government officials hear from those most affected by their decisions. The ability of citizens to inform public policy is the hallmark of any democracy, including Israel. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be at the vanguard of democracy and pluralism, promoting the values of free and open debate.
Therefore, it was striking that some of the most prominent Israeli NGOs boycotted the December 1st Knesset conference on "Foreign Government Funding for NGO Political Activity in Israel." The agenda included the political, diplomatic and legal issues raised by the phenomenon of NGOs which receive tens of millions of shekels from foreign governments, often without the knowledge of the Israeli government and public. Legislative proposals were also considered.
Minister Michael Eitan and MK Zeev Elkin invited officials from Israeli NGOs to speak at the conference, in order to include representation from groups that would be affected by future legislation. B'Tselem, the Association for Civil Right in Israel (ACRI), and Adalah receive millions in European government support. These NGOs have a vested interest in making their voices heard, and they were given an open platform.
But they refused to attend. Instead, NGOs and their allies initiated a campaign to delegitimize the conference and silence its organizers. They pressed MKs like Daniel Ben-Simon to cancel participation in the event, and wrote angry op-eds in The Jerusalem Post (David Newman) and Ha'aretz (Didi Remez). Reflecting the pervasive secrecy and lack of full disclosure, Remez did not reveal that he works for Ben-Or Communications. In this role, he has a direct and personal interest in many of the organizations he was defending: the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Bimkom, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), and Yesh Din.
These over-the-top reactions and silencing of critics reflect the "democracy deficit" and secretive nature of human rights NGOs in general. This trend is more pronounced among Israeli groups that rely heavily on foreign government funding.
THE ACTIVITIES of these organizations embody the narrow political goals of a few ideologues and their European backers. These opposition groups cannot claim to be rooted in Israeli civil society when they are funded by the EU and various European governments (including Switzerland and Norway).
When Ir Amim lobbies on Jerusalem or Yesh Din initiates dozens of court cases against government policy, whose interests are being represented? Money talks, and in these examples, the governmental sponsors come from the EU, UK, Netherlands, and Norway. This highly problematic foreign funding is a "back door" for European governments to influence Israeli policy, in sharp contrast to legitimate diplomatic means.
The target audiences for the foreign-funded Israeli NGOs are increasingly located outside of Israel. B'Tselem's Washington and London representatives lobbied intensively on behalf of the Goldstone Report. And Breaking the Silence's "testimonies" alleging Israeli war crimes were featured in numerous United Nations submissions, university campus tours, and international media articles. These anti-Israel campaigns are accompanied by avoidance of any potentially critical discourse - as seen in the boycott of the Knesset conference.
Similarly, David Newman's ideological attack on NGO Monitor is based on straw-man arguments and reflects his personal bias. There is an obvious reason why our detailed report did not address right-wing groups: European governments only fund NGOs from a narrow segment of Israel's political spectrum. Given this imbalance, the attempts by European governments to manipulate Israeli policy are brought into sharp focus. Certainly, the question of Diaspora support for organizations that represent the Right and the Left is important and should be given separate attention. But, that issue was not at stake in the Knesset event.
Ironically, those that claim to defend human rights do so by stifling criticism and free expression. In contrast, NGO Monitor promotes transparency, critical analysis, and debate. On this issue, officials of the NGOs that benefit from this foreign largesse may be correct - public disclosure and debate will not help them promote their ideologies or biases. NGOs have long been shielded by the "halo effect," which allows their reports to be taken at face value, and now believe that they should be immune from all criticism and investigation.
Unfortunately, in eschewing substantive dialogue and delegitimizing those who disagree with or criticize them, the NGOs weaken the very democratic processes that they claim to promote.
The writer is the managing editor of NGO Monitor.