Legislation against left-wing NGOs could harm Israelis

‘Our democracy is now under serious threat,’ says new SHATIL director as Elkin bill advances.

A spate of legislation aimed at local NGOs critical of Israel could end up limiting freedom of speech and expression for every Israeli, Ronit Heyd, the executive director of SHATIL, The New Israel Fund’s Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change Organizations in Israel, said on Wednesday, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“The most worrying trend over the last year is that most people do not really understand that our democracy is now under serious threat,” Heyd told the Post, less than a month after taking over at the Jerusalem-based organization.
“Currently it only affects a certain group in society; human rights organizations are the ones under fire right now, but in the future it could affect other communities and individuals who do not agree with the mainstream view or the views and policies of the country’s decision-makers,” she said.
“I’m afraid people think this is only relevant for this strange group of people – those who are busy advocating for rights of Israeli Palestinians or the Palestinians in Gaza – but if it continues, in the future, it will be relevant for more and more people.”
Heyd was referring to three bills submitted to the Knesset in the past six months – two by Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin (one of which was co-sponsored by National Union MK Arye Eldad), and a third bill sponsored by Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh.
The most recent was a bill submitted by Elkin that passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday. If it becomes law, it would be illegal for Israelis to support or aid the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, or to receive money from international organizations that do so.
According to the initial draft of that bill, people who are not citizens or residents of Israel involved in such boycott activities could be stopped from entering the country for at least 10 years, and foreign entities engaged in actions against Israel would be blocked from using Israeli bank accounts, Israeli stocks, or Israeli land. Israelis, and non-Israelis who have residency rights here, would be fined if they violated the law.
Elkin responded on Wednesday by saying that his bills were no threat to democracy.
He added that no organization had anything to fear from the bill dealing with funding sources because it merely requires that the names of foreign funders are made transparent.
Heyd said, “There is a serious need for concern when the government is trying to silence dissenting voices, trying to silence any voice in society that criticizes the way the government is working.
“Even if we disagree with what these voices are saying, and in some cases we do disagree, it is still crucial for them be able to voice their concerns over the way the Israeli government and Israel at large is operating.”
She previously headed the Social and Economic Justice Department at SHATIL and has worked for the organization for more than nine years.
The bill comes less than six month after the New Israel Fund came under fire following a report published by the Zionist student group Im Tirtzu, which said that Israeli NGOs funded by the New Israel Fund had provided the information that formed the basis for the UN’s Goldstone Report on Israel’s activities during the Gaza conflict in 2008-09.
The NIF recently issued a statement on the matter, re-affirming its commitment to social justice and human rights, as well as to Israel.
On Wednesday, it denied that SHATIL was a “left-wing organization” and said that only a “few dozen” out of around 1,500 non-profits that receive training from it are overtly political or involved in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
“It is simply not the case,” Heyd said of the claims against SHATIL. “We work with all types of groups, including assisting ultra- Orthodox women, environmental issues, groups that deal with social rights, housing, planning, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, freedom of choice in marriage and the conversion process.”
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.