McCarthyism, Israeli-style?

Many on the center-left of the political spectrum see the Knesset investigatory panels’ proposed anti-boycott legislation as the tip of a huge anti-democratic iceberg.

Danny Danon (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Danny Danon (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
IN THE WINTER OF 2011, A simmering struggle over the essence of Israeli democracy came to the boil.
According to the left-wing narrative, the radical Israeli right is mounting an unrestrained assault on basic democratic values; according to the right-wingers, they are valiantly defending the country against leftist would-be delegitimizers backed by foreign capital.
The ideological clash intensified in mid- February, when the Knesset’s Law, Constitution and Justice Committee approved a bill banning the use of boycotts as a political tool in Israel. The bill, which now goes to the Knesset plenum for the first of three readings before it becomes law, prohibits initiation or encouragement of boycotts against Israel or the West Bank settlements under its control, and also makes it a crime “to provide assistance or information with the purpose of promoting a boycott.”
Left-wingers argued that the bill violates a basic democratic right to non-violent protest through economic sanctions and that its broad language paves the way for draconian outlawing of actions like publishing settlement maps, listing firms operating in settlements or actors refusing to perform in the West Bank. Right-wingers countered that the legislation is necessary to stop Israelis providing boycott precedents that could be used to justify the potentially far more dangerous international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) against Israel.
Even more divisive, though, has been a move to set up two Knesset committees, headed and manned solely by right-wingers, to investigate the funding and activities of Israeli human-rights organizations on the left. Left-wingers denounced the initiative as a McCarthyist witch hunt, while rightwingers lauded it as a timely step to stop foreign money being used to defame Israel and to tilt the domestic political discourse in a leftward direction.
To many on the center-left of the political spectrum, however, the threat to Israeli democracy runs much deeper. They see the investigation committees and the proposed anti-boycott legislation as only the tip of a huge anti-democratic iceberg.
ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, counts more than 20 legislative proposals in the pipeline which, it says, would curb fundamental human rights or seriously compromise checks and balances in the Israeli system.
THE HEATED EXCHANGES between left and right raised several fundamental questions.
For example, what hurts Israel more, human-rights organizations pointing to alleged moral failings or the perceived rightwing witch hunt against them? Are rightwingers genuine in their concerns about Israel’s delegitimization or simply using them as a populist stick to beat the left and win votes? And is foreign, mainly European, money surreptitiously being used to delegitimize Israel and help bring the left to power, or does it genuinely serve to promote Israeli democracy, accommodation with the Palestinians, scientific research, social betterment and other worthy goals? In July last year, ACRI executive director Hagai Elad and Debbie Gild-Hayo, the organization’s chief Knesset monitor, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin complaining of the use of legislation to undermine democratic norms like freedom of speech, political protest and equality before the law. They urged Netanyahu and Rivlin “to lead the way, instill values and defend democratic principles,” and not to allow the “tyranny of the majority” to trample minority rights or to countenance claims of “democracy defending itself” as a cloak for antidemocratic legislation.
In their letter, Elad and Gild-Hayo listed 14 bills they regarded as anti-democratic.
Since then the ACRI list has swelled to over 20, including bills demanding pledges of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state from all Knesset Members, including Arabs, revoking the citizenship of persons convicted of terrorism or espionage, granting preferential treatment to people who have served in the military, demanding oaths of loyalty from filmmakers seeking state funding and preventing the Supreme Court from ruling on security-related matters or the constitutionality of Knesset legislation.
According to Gild-Hayo, it is the sheer mass of this kind of proposed legislation that gives most cause for concern. She maintains that even if only a few bills pass in this Knesset, the foundations are being laid for widespread anti-democratic legislation in the future. “If there is another Knesset term like this one, perhaps many more laws like these will pass,” she tells The Report. “Already there is an anti-democratic atmosphere built on delegitimization of political opponents and slurs against Arabs, leftists and human-rights organizations as enemies of the state.”
In Gild-Hayo’s view, the political discourse in Israel is growing increasingly antidemocratic, characterized in part by a seminal failure to understand the role human-rights NGOs play and their importance for civil society. She sees two main thrusts in the antidemocratic discourse: curtailing civil rights and delegitimizing political opponents. And she sees the establishment of Knesset committees to investigate the NGOs as part of this anti-democratic process, arguing that they are totally redundant since it is already the case that all donations, including those from foreign sources, have to be made transparent by law. “In setting up these panels, all they are doing is to insinuate that organizations that get money from a foreign country are illegitimate enemies of the state, serving the interests of foreign paymasters,” she declares.
The legislation to set up parliamentary panels to investigate the activities of Israeli humanrights groups began in the Knesset, in early January, when the plenum voted by a large majority (47-16) to ask the House Committee to determine their composition and terms of reference. Amonth later, the House Committee approved two panels made up solely of rightwing members, one headed by Faina Kirschenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu and including Knesset Members Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev (Likud), Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) and Nissim Zeev (Shas), with a mandate to investigate the funding of NGOs allegedly undermining the IDF and working to prosecute IDF soldiers and officers abroad, and another under Danny Danon of the Likud with Knesset Members Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), Anastasia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu), Arye Eldad (National Union) and Avraham Michaeli (Shas) to investigate the involvement of foreign governments and bodies in funding actions against the state and attempts to purchase land, primarily in the Galilee.
FROM THE OUTSET, THE INITIAtive to establish the committees was shrouded in controversy. Almost the entire parliamentary opposition from centrist Kadima to the Arab parties decided to boycott them as undemocratic. Knesset Speaker Rivlin distanced himself from what he called “a dangerous and problematic precedent.”
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon warned that “these committees, unlike Knesset committees convened in the past, seek to engage in something that can be construed as narrowing and limiting rights fundamental to a democratic system of government, including freedom of speech, the right to protest and the right of political association.”
Yinon’s comments were echoed by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who defended the panels against a High Court petition only on the grounds that they had not yet been finally authorized. “It is impossible to ignore the chilling effect of such investigative panels, should they be established, on fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of association,” he acknowledged in his reply to the court. Aweek before the final plenum vote on the panels, scheduled for February 28, the Likud gave its Knesset Members a free vote, putting the already shaky majority for establishing the committees in serious jeopardy.
Danon, who is slated to head one of the panels, rejects claims that its work will be akin to a McCarthyist investigation of political opponents on the left. He argues that it should be seen more as a fact-finding mission, studying the relevant issues in depth, the way the previous 24 parliamentary committees handled or are handling issues like football hooliganism and integration of Israeli Arabs in the public sector. “The term committee of investigation is misleading,” he tells The Report. “It would be better to call it a committee of inquiry.”
On the substance, Danon sees two main problems with foreign funding: Arab money coming in from Saudi Arabia for land purchases in the Galilee; and European money trying to influence the political discourse in Israel and to put Israel in the dock on the international stage. On the Arab money, he says he does not yet have the facts. But with regard to the Europeans, he sees a conspiratorial vicious circle, in which European governments give human-rights groups money expressly to defame Israel. “Take the Goldstone Commission on the war in Gaza, for example. It got input from organizations funded by foreign governments. Then those same governments used the findings to slam Israel. They used the civil-rights organizations as mercenaries to provide materials and testimonies to enable them to denounce Israel,” Danon tells The Report.
Danon also contends that the Europeans are trying to influence public opinion in Israel in illegitimate ways. “I have seen protocols of the European Union in which they say one of the goals is to persuade the Israeli public to give up Judea and Samaria,” he claims. “With all due respect, we don’t need foreign governments trying to influence the Israeli public either way.”
One of the conclusions Danon already envisages is cutting off foreign funds for organizations that undertake political advocacy.
“They will have to make up their minds. If they deal with education and welfare, they will be able to get foreign government funding, but if they undertake political advocacy, if they have a political agenda, if they want to change the government or influence public opinion, they won’t be able to get funding from foreign governments,” he declares.
BUT WHO WILL DECIDE WHAT constitutes a political agenda? Would, say, reports on infractions by the IDF by an organization like B’Tselem, which monitors human rights in the occupied territories, fall into that category? And how, leftwingers ask, could that be justified in a democracy? Left-wingers also question the need for fact-finding on their sources of funding, which they claim are all already totally transparent.
By law, all Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs) have to submit audited balance sheets to the registrar of NPOs, putting their funding in the public domain. Moreover, following an agreement with the government in March 2009, a website called GuideStar publishes funding and other information on NPOs it receives from the registrar. For example, it shows that Physicians for Human Rights received NIS 4,912,000 ($1,355,410) from abroad in 2008, including from the European Commission, Embassy of the Netherlands, Ford Foundation, Christian Aid, EED, the German Church Development Service and Oxfam. B’Tselem received NIS 8,637,515 in 2008 and NIS 2,766,061 in 2009 from, inter alia, Foundation of Middle East Peace, Taub Family Foundation, Ford Foundation, Royal Danish Representative Office, Royal Norwegian Embassy, Catholic Relief Services, Annenberg Foundation and the UK-based Sigrid Rausing Trust.
But for Yisrael Beiteinu’s Kirschenbaum, who is slated to head the panel investigating attempts to delegitimize the IDF, even these detailed reports are far too superficial.
“The registrar says show me who you got the money from. And they say simply, for example, ‘The Ford Foundation.’ But I want to know exactly who is funding which projects: Those that photograph soldiers at the roadblocks, those who go into schools to persuade students not to enlist in the IDF, those who press charges in Europe. I want to know who exactly gave money for all these activities,” she tells The Report.
Kirschenbaum says she doesn’t need the human-rights organizations to appear before her committee to find out who is financing what. She says she will summon representatives of relevant government bodies like the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the IDF. Like Danon, she believes that most European money comes with strings attached and that Israeli human-rights organizations are serving as agents of foreign powers with the clear aim of delegitimizing the IDF and Israel, and making it virtually impossible for Israel to defend itself when attacked.
Stretching a point and conflating European countries and NGOs, Kirschenbaum claims that at the first Durban Conference against racism in 2001, which took a strongly anti-Israel turn, “the European countries made a decision to enter the public discourse in Israel and to change it. And if their aim is to influence the public discourse here, then they certainly aren’t giving money for any unspecified activities.
They are demanding something in return,” she claims. In her view, Israeli groups that may have started out as human-rights organizations “changed direction,” when the European money they got came with specific demands. “Therefore I want to link the activities they conduct to the money they get,” she says.
Kirschenbaum denies that what she is doing has an anti-democratic ring to it, or that she is playing into the hands of the would-be delegitimizers by giving Israel a bad name.
“That the media tries to turn it into something like that, that’s the media’s problem,” she snaps. “In what way does this committee undermine democracy? I don’t think the Israeli people think it does. On the contrary, the fears people are expressing and the noise they are making over this suggest that perhaps we have struck a raw nerve.”
Kirschenbaum also denies that in lambasting the left-wing human-rights groups, her hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party is playing politics, trying to pick up more right-wing votes at the expense of the Likud. “From the outset we spoke about our concerns over the loyalty of Israeli citizens and this is partly what we are working for. We are also defending the State of Israel and its right to defend itself,” she declares.
FOR THEIR PART, THE EUROpeans strongly deny that they have any political axe to grind when it comes to funding human-rights NGOs in Israel. David Kriss, spokesman for the EU delegation in Tel Aviv, tells The Report that respect for human rights is an integral part of Israel’s Agreement of Association with the EU and that there is also a joint action plan that states that the sides will work together to promote the shared values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. In other words, it is only natural that the EU should be involved in human-rights projects in Israel. And in Kriss’s view, it is absurd to suggest that EU money comes with any political strings attached. “We do not dictate which projects will be submitted and we can only choose from those that are. And once they are submitted, the proposals are evaluated on the basis of standard non-political criteria, for example, the financial and operational capacity of the applicant; the relevance of the proposal to the objectives outlined in the call for proposals; whether the methodology is clear and practical and coherent; the sustainability of the project; how much impact it will have; and how it will be financed after the EU stops financing it. These are the kinds of criteria we use. None of them are political in any way,” he insists.
Kriss also maintains that the EU is totally transparent with regard to its funding, making it clear exactly what the projects are that it supports and how much money it is allocating for each one. “It’s hard to see how the EU could be more transparent,” he contends. “After proposals have been selected and the contracts have been signed, the entire list of accepted projects with their precise funding goes online.
You can see it all on our website very clearly.”
Indeed, the website shows that, in 2009, the EU was funding 34 projects and organizations in Israel to the tune of 7 million euros, and had allocated over 77 million euros for 63 projects and organizations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Interestingly, just over half of the EU funding in the Palestinian territories, 38.9 million euros, went to an Israeli company, Dor Alon Energy, for provision of essential services, and of the 7 million allocated to Israel proper, just under one-third went to human-rights groups, including Adallah, ACRI, Yesh Din, Bimkom and Rabbis for Human Rights, and the rest to a string of scientific, infrastructure, health, education, welfare, environmental, cultural and peacemaking projects.
Still, not all informed observers are convinced that the Europeans are being totally open. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group, that monitors the funding and activities of NGOs operating in Israel and the occupied territories, talks about an “invisible 100 million euros,” which he estimates the EU countries pump into around 100 organizations in Israel and the Palestinian areas without any public disclosure.
Steinberg also complains that some European-funded organizations, like “Breaking the Silence,” have distorted the international discourse on Israel by publishing false or highly exaggerated claims about infractions in the IDF, and that the EU has also allowed fringe elements in the Israeli political discourse, like Yishai Menuhin, the driving force behind the Public Committee against Torture, to gain far more prominence than their negligible weight in Israeli society warrants.
Steinberg argues that the way to deal with what he sees as the European funding distortions should be through heightened diplomatic and public pressure on donors and recipients alike. “Israeli leaders and diplomats should put the funding issue high on their agendas in contacts with European counterparts. There should also be demonstrations outside European embassies to stop the funding for demonization,” he urges.
Steinberg, however, is opposed to the parliamentary committees investigating the human-rights groups, which, he says, could, because of their partisan nature, be easily discredited, allowing the serious problem of linkage between European funding and delegitimization of Israel to slip under the radar. “I think those kinds of draconian proposals pull the rug out from under very reasonable demands for transparency.
It’s easier to oppose a government-led investigation than it is to oppose transparency legislation,” he tells The Report.
Steinberg and others who favor additional transparency legislation for human-rights groups point to the American model, specifically to the 1938 “Foreign Agents Registration Act” (FARA), to show how other democracies have adopted similar measures. The trouble is that FARA refers only to “agents representing the interests of foreign powers” not domestic human-rights groups. The people who have to register under FARA are firms who lobby for, provide legal advice to, or promote interests like tourism for foreign countries – not local human-rights groups who monitor the actions of their own government. In other words, it is highly misleading to claim that forcing human-rights groups in Israel to register in the same way would simply be to adopt the American FARA model.
Indeed, left-wingers argue that instead of facing the significant issues raised by the human-rights organizations, the right is using procedural issues, like who finances them, in an effort to discredit them.
“It is clear that it is a political maneuver, not a genuine inquiry,” says B’Tselem director Jessica Montell. “There will not be any engagement on the substance of our work and our human-rights concerns. I wish there would be. But it is clear that the motivation is exactly the opposite: It’s to silence humanrights organizations, rather than engage with human rights.”
Montell argues that far from delegitimizing the IDF, whose actions it monitors in the Palestinian territories, B’Tselem is helping it to maintain humanitarian standards. “Ask the IDF. They do not feel that B’Tselem delegitimizes them. On the contrary, we have excellent relations with the IDF. We provide a lot of assistance to the military to pursue domestic accountability and they recognize the importance of our work,” she tells The Report.
Montell vehemently denies that European money B’Tselem receives comes with any strings attached or that it acts in any way as a foreign agent. She also denies allegations that B’Tselem was largely responsible for the critical tenor of the Goldstone Report on the 2008-9 war in Gaza, which, she says, was rather a result of the Israeli government’s decision not to conduct an investigation of its own or to cooperate with Goldstone.
“The Goldstone Report would have been much richer and fairer if Israel had provided information. It can’t really complain that the report is one-sided when it chose not to present its side of the story,” Montell says. “And with or without B’Tselem, Goldstone had access to a lot of information,” she insists.
Indeed, Montell argues that rather than helping to delegitimize Israel, B’Tselem is actually helping to show its good face. “If anything, B’Tselem is an excellent example of the strength of Israeli democracy. What delegitimizes Israel are things like the Knesset investigation panels. So if the right has concerns about B’Tselem delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the international community, it’s really a case of the pot calling the kettle black,” she concludes.