Amending laws

Bad laws don’t make good NGOs

Ayelet Shaked
In defense of her NGO transparency bill, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked turned to American poet Robert Frost and his poem, “Mending Wall,” with it’s famous quote that “good fences make good neighbors” to build an argument that democracies cannot suffice with defending their physical borders alone. “Sometimes the real threat lies in the interference in another country’s internal affairs,” Shaked wrote in a recent op-ed published by the JTA.
The bill, she wrote, “seeks to create transparency and clarity in relation to the parties financing Israeli NGOs that receive more than half of their annual budget directly from a foreign government. In no way does it prevent the activity of those NGOs, nor does it impose any restriction on their activities or forms of expression. In fact, the requirements it stipulates are much less stringent than those imposed by the United States upon similar types of activity under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).”
The law would require any NGO that is over 50 percent funded by foreign governments to state this explicitly and to detail which foreign entities donated to them in all its publications and in reports that are publicly available, and in any contact in writing or at meetings with public officials or employees.
If adopted, the bill would have little effect other than to label those deemed “foreign agents.” It would not in any way, as Shaked notes, impose restrictions on their activities or forms of expression. It would be hard to argue with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who said the law would have a “chilling effect” on NGO activities. It is it seems aimed at marking “undesirable” activities and is part of an ongoing “you are with us or against us” campaign aimed at the government’s critics.
On an aside, the bill is similar to another purportedly innocuous labeling law, the EU guideline that requires the labeling of settlement produce – a guideline that singles out Israel, has almost zero practical impact and is aimed at creating a negative atmosphere.
Shapiro met with Shaked this week and following their meeting issued a statement that, beyond expressing US concerns over the bill, also noted how it differs in intent and purpose from the FARA.
“The US law imposes no limits, restrictions, or transparency requirements on the receipt of foreign funding by NGOs operating in the United States, other than those generally applicable to all Americans,” the statement read. “ In contrast, the draft Israeli law would target NGOs simply because they are funded principally by foreign government entities. That is not how the Foreign Agents Registration Act works. FARA requires individuals or organizations to register as foreign agents only if they engage in certain specified activities at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity.”
It would be spurious to claim that NGOs such as B’tselem, Peace Now and The New Israel Fund operate at the instruction of foreign interests. These organizations were not founded to lobby for foreign powers against Israel, they were founded by Israelis who care deeply about Israeli society and have their own agenda vis-a-vis human rights, minority rights and the Palestinian conflict, among other issues. They have arisen indigenously and not as tools of external actors.
It may well be the case, as the bill’s advocates say, that certain external government actors are using the NGOs to influence the Israeli political process and that, for example, EU funding is disproportionately higher for Israeli NGOs than in other countries.
However, is the law really the best way to tackle perceived European manipulation of Israeli democracy? Any law aimed at combating external influence needs to show equality before the law, to be applicable to both private and public funding and not to target a particular political grouping. It needs to be a law that reflects similar laws in Western democracies. The current proposal can only engender unfavorable comparisons for Israel, such as a recent Washington Post editorial that likens the government’s tactics to those used by Russia and China to squelch dissent.
If there are groups, such as Breaking the Silence, that are facilitating delegitimization against Israel, as proponents of the bill have charged, then alternative ways need to be found to combat them – the bill in any event will do nothing to stop that.
The marketplace of ideas, not the use of restrictive legislation, would be a better place to start. However, Shaked and certain elements on the right are increasingly focused on shutting down debate. If you aren’t on their side, you are on the wrong side.
To quote another line from “Mending Wall”:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall...