There has been a lot of commotion and misunderstanding about a proposed parliamentary panel of inquiry that would investigate the funding of Israeli NGO’s. Tired epithets such as ‘McCarthyism’ have predictably been thrown around as a result. Recently this term has taken on an ironic twist when groups or individuals increasingly use to it to defend themselves from any democratic process that they decide to stand against. These groups turn ‘McCarthyism’ on its head by bandying it around in an attempt to silence all dissenting opinions. Israeli society was awakened to the idea of NGO’s as tools of foreign political agendas, by the episode concerning Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) fundraising attempts in Saudi Arabia. According to the Wall Street Journal, an HRW spokesperson, Sarah Leah Whitson, attempted to open the pockets of the Saudi elite by highlighting HRW’s battles with pro-Israel groups. That an organization ostensibly concerned with human rights would choose to fundraise in perhaps one of the worst human-rights abusing nations in the world, and use Israel as bait, should disturb us all. This may or may not be an extreme or isolated example, but it is evidence that NGO’s can become hostage to foreign interference through the funding it receives. The Knesset panel of inquiry is simply about transparency. If there are groups who receive funds from foreign nations then the Israeli public deserves the right to know. Some voices have mistakenly declared that this type of inquiry is reminiscent of undemocratic regimes. Perhaps they should take a look at America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act which is, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website, a “disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.” It is understandable for any state to want to identify those citizens or organizations that are being paid to act at the behest of a foreign government or organization. Furthermore, a cornerstone of the European Transparency Initiative (ETI), adopted by the European Commission in 2005, remains to provide public information on the recipients of EU funds. In reaction to this initiative, the EU Civil Society Contact Group that brings together eight large rights and value based NGO sectors, called for “better publicity and accountability regarding EU funding, enhanced ethical rules for EU institutions and more transparent lobbying." The concepts of accountability and transparency in funding have been endorsed by the U.S. and the European Union, including by its civil society representatives. So why do some Israeli NGO’s cry foul? Simply put, if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. When an NGO is being paid by a foreign country or organization that will have a practical effect on our society, the Israeli people have a right to know. If organizations attempt to convince Israeli youth to avoid serving in the army and defending our nation and receive funds from those who are hostile even to the continued existence of our state, we need to know the truth. If they are not, then this inquiry will not be of relevance to them. It is time for those who claim to represent liberal civil society to identify themselves fully and stop lurking in the shadows. These organizations, many of which claim to fight for truth and full disclosure, appear less than willing to be judged by their own standards. Those who act as lobbies for foreign agendas will be exposed and laid bare for the Israeli public to see. In Israel’s democracy, we welcome and are proud of those who serve as civil society’s checks and balances. After all, the Knesset is the reflection of the will of the Israeli people, who can choose to become active in a myriad of social or political causes. However, when the will of the Israeli people is superseded because of the deep pockets of a foreign nation or organization then this is plainly undemocratic.
Danny Ayalon is Israel''s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and a Member of Knesset for Yisrael Beiteinu. His personal website can be found at www.DannyAyalon.com