A slippery slope

European governments spend more on left-wing NGOs in Israel than their total contributions to nonprofit human rights groups in the Middle East.

NGO (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Left is up in arms. Two bills that aim to clamp severe restrictions on foreign government funding of Israeli human rights NGOs were approved for government support Sunday by a committee of cabinet ministers in a 11-5 vote.
In response, Peace Now Director Yariv Oppenheimer said that “Israeli democracy has been surrendered to right-wing extremists and is in a state of bankruptcy.”
Labor Party head Shelly Yacimovich urged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to “open his eyes and conduct himself as [prime minister] Menachem Begin did when he elevated the rule of law above all else and would not lend a hand to the destruction of Israel’s democratic institutions.”
Indeed, the bills are problematic. One, sponsored by MK Ophir Akunis (Likud), would limit to just NIS 20,000 a year the amount that a foreign government, government-sponsored foundation or group of governments such as the European Union could give to an Israeli NGO considered “political.”
The other, sponsored by MK Fania Kirschenbaum (Israel Beiteinu), would take away tax breaks enjoyed by NGOs, resulting in a 45 percent tax on foreign governments’ donations.
Though Kirschenbaum’s legislation, unlike Akunis’s, does not single out “political” NGOs, it nevertheless is seen as targeting left-wing bodies, which tend to be funded by foreign government and quasi-government bodies. Rightwing NGOs, in contrast, often receive financial support from foreign individuals and private organizations.
But while the proposed legislation, still in their preliminary stages and expected to undergo a revamping before being voted on in the Knesset, seems to be unabashedly ideological and intended to punish only one way of thinking, it is still too early to dismiss our democracy as “bankrupt,” “destroyed” or in any other way significantly compromised.
These two bills, and other controversial legislative initiatives, are all being discussed in lively, open public debates and are being proposed by lawmakers voted into office in free, democratic elections. And even if the bills are passed as is, which is highly unlikely, NGOs will not be prevented from operating, though funding will be harder to come by.
Critics of the bills, who are quick to declare the demise of our democratic system, show a surprising lack of understanding for the populist forces demanding a restriction on funding to NGOs openly antagonistic to Israeli institutions and policies. For decades NGOs have abused the openness of Israeli society and exploited their status as human rights’ watchdogs to advance a decidedly anti-Israel agenda.
But the turning point was the Goldstone Report. Issued by a UN committee chaired by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist, the document made unfounded claims, later retracted by Goldstone, to the effect that IDF troops had purposely targeted civilians during Operation Cast Lead, an invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 meant to stop rocket and mortar fire against Israeli civilians.
The committee’s erroneous conclusions, which wreaked irreversible damage to Israel’s moral standing in the world, were based on information received from NGOs, some of which are now being targeted by the two controversial bills.
Nevertheless, while we understand the motivation behind Akunis’s and Kirschenbaum’s bills, restricting NGO funding is not the answer. Left-wing NGOs perform an important role in keeping the IDF and other institutions to their high moral standards. Using ideological criteria to determine which NGOs are eligible for donations or tax breaks, and which are not, curtails freedom of speech and is a slippery slope that could lead to politically motivated witch-hunts.
Legislation sponsored by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and framed after the US’s Foreign Agents Registration Act was already passed back in February, making the Akunis and Kirschenbaum bills superfluous. Under the law, drafted in consultation with Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, all NGOs, regardless of their political leaning, must issue quarterly reports on their foreign government funding. Those which refrain from disclosure will be subject to a fine of nearly NIS 30,000.
The sort of transparency promoted by Elkin’s bill has brought to light the fact that European governments spend more on left-wing NGOs operating in Israel – between $75 million and $100m. a year – than their total contributions to nonprofit human rights groups in other Middle East countries, according to NGO Monitor.
We hope the Europeans will begin to realize that their money would be best put to use not in Israel, the region’s only true democracy, but in places such as Syria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere where human rights are regularly and egregiously trampled.