Rid our politics of foreign intervention

Counterpoint to:

 Knesset approves investigation of Israeli human rights groups

“The funding of Israeli human and civil rights groups is to be investigated amid claims they are acting against the country''s interests, members of the Israeli parliament decided today – a move described by opponents as ‘McCarthyite’."

Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian (London)
January 5, 2011

Avigdor Lieberman may have the diplomatic finesse of a nightclub bouncer (a job he has actually held), but even so, some things can be right even if it is Lieberman who says them.

Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu, has tabled a proposal to establish a parliamentary commission to investigate foreign funding of leftwing organizations. Some voices have been raised against the proposal, claiming it is McCarthyism. But is it?


Consider for a moment what would happen if it turned out that Saudi Arabia was funding an organization in France campaigning to repeal the hijab or burka law restricting women from covering their head or face in public. Or if it turned out that Libya was funding an organization in Britian campaigning for the British to get out of Northern Ireland and return it to the Irish republic. Or even if a friendly nation, such as The Netherlands, funded dissident groups in the United States campaigning against the detention of enemy combatants in Guantanamo.


In any free society it would be perfectly legitimate for local citizens to campaign for these issues. But neither France, nor Britain, nor the United States would tolerate such interference in their internal affairs by foreign nationals - and neither should Israel.


Aside from their good work for bona fide social causes, many non-government organizations (NGOs) also have a political agenda. There is nothing wrong with that, provided they are not quietly funded by foreign agencies or entities. Despite its many imperfections, Israel is a free society perfectly capable of managing its own internal political affairs – and if not perfectly, then no less perfect than most.


So far, there are probably few who would disagree, but here’s the problem with Lieberman’s initiative. It cannot be restricted only to those areas of politics that one happens to like and be excluded from those one does not like. Leftwing "Breaking the silence" gets funding from Britain, the Netherlands and Spain, and rightwing "Im Tirtzu" gets funding from the United States. If Israel is going to regulate foreign funding of political activism then it must regulate them all, whether leftwing or rightwing. Anything less would be struck down by the Supreme Court, and rightly so.


The apparent bias in Yisrael Beitenu’s proposal has opened the door to the inflated cries of McCarthyism from many political circles, though mostly from the leftwing. It is inflated because McCarthyism, named for the nineteen-fifties US senator and communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, is the practice of making sweeping accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. Now that is a far cry from the objectives and limited powers of the proposed parliamentary commission, though it is understandable why some watchdog organizations may go on the alert.


Inflating events in Israel out of all proportion to other countries is the avocation of the conventional Israel-bashing forums. In one such case, The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, Harriet Sherwood, made a pretentious attempt to report both sides of the issue, but predictably devoted most of her dispatch to the allegations of McCarthyism. Then, with a final thrust of her sword, she made this damning point:


 “Civil and human rights organisations in Israel are concerned about other bills that have been presented to MPs, including moves to impose heavy fines on Israeli citizens backing boycotts of the country, a call for greater transparency on the foreign funding of rights groups and the demand that new non-Jewish citizens must pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state.”


In other words, Sherwood is encouraging her readers to conclude that civil liberties and human rights in Israel are in a dreadful decline. She, of course, did not believe it worthwhile to add that none of these bills were ever passed by the Knesset. Nor did she mention that the loyalty pledge proposal was amended soon after it was proposed, at the direction of the Prime Minister, to include all new citizens (of any religion or nationality).


The unfortunate fact is that Yisrael Beitenu provided the fodder to feed the prejudices of the Sherwood’s of the international media. Lieberman’s party identified a valid concern and then proceeded to present it in a way that did more damage than good. If he and his colleagues had presented their case in a fair unbiased fashion, the outcry would have been reduced to no more than a murmur, if anything.


The establishment of a Knesset investigatory commission on foreign funding of political activities in Israel should go ahead, the commission should        have multi-partisan membership and its mandate should be nonpartisan. It should result in regulatory legislation that sets limits on foreign funding for political and para-political organizations, and transparency for the public reflected clearly in all the organizations’ political activities. The Israeli public will know how to relate to political activities if they know that part of the funding comes from another country

At the moment the situation is intolerable. Though many NGOs are legitimate and do fine work, the fact remains that anyone can establish an NGO and choose a name that may or may not reflect their activities. And with funding from abroad,  the result is unwelcome and possibly dangerous intervention in Israel’s internal politics. That is one mess we do not need and which is relatively easy to prevent. If done correctly, without treading on civil liberties, the result could be a strengthening of Israel’s democracy and possibly an example for other free societies to follow.