Expose NGOs - democratically

Israel’s vibrant democracy does not merely survive criticism, it thrives and is improved by it.

BTselem Logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
BTselem Logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some NGOs’ detrimental effect on Israel’s image in the world has recently sparked a flurry of legislative action, not all of which is in line with democratic values.
At the beginning of the year, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed creating a Knesset “inquiry committee” that would single out and scrutinize the foreign funding of NGOs critical of Israel, particularly those that focus on supposed Israeli “war crimes.” Thankfully, that initiative, which would have blurred the lines between the executive, judicial and legislative arms of government, was voted down in the Knesset.
Now two additional legislative initiatives have been presented to the Ministerial Legislation Committee, for consideration next month, that are designed to curtail the work of NGOs deemed hostile to Israel.
MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) has proposed to limit donations that a “political” NGO could receive from foreign entities to NIS 20,000 a year. (A political NGO is defined as one that attempts to “influence the internal political discourse and the character and policies of the State of Israel.”) Meanwhile, MK Faina Kirschenbaum (Israel Beiteinu) would revoke tax-free status on donations that political NGOs can receive from foreign entities, resulting in a 45 percent tax on donations. To protect pro-Israeli NGOs, Kirschenbaum suggests a litmus test: Non-profits that receive some of their funding from the Israeli government would not be hurt; those that don’t, would.
We share the concern of lawmakers who have seen certain NGOs exploit their status as human rights’ watchdogs to advance a decidedly anti-Israel agenda. During Operation Cast Lead, for instance, some NGOs provided inaccurate figures on the ratio of combatant to noncombatant deaths, and/or claimed that the IDF purposely targeted Palestinian civilians in Gaza, an allegation later retracted by Richard Goldstone, author of the UN Human Rights Council on Operation Cast Lead that bears his name. Some NGOs use disparaging terms to describe Israel, referring to it, for instance, as an “apartheid state,” though no systematic comparison with the institutionalized racism and colonialism implemented in South Africa is, or could be, provided. And this is just a sampling.
Nevertheless, it would be highly unwise and anti-democratic to pass legislation empowering the government to single out purportedly biased NGOs for censure. 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 an ideological witch hunt.
THE BEST remedy is increased transparency. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in 1913, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”
Legislation sponsored by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and framed after the US’s Foreign Agents Registration Act was already approved back in February, making the Akunis and Kirschenbaum bills superfluous.
Elkin’s legislation requires all NGOs, regardless of their political leaning, to issue quarterly reports on their foreign government funding. Those that refrain from disclosure will be subject to a fine of nearly NIS 30,000. If properly implemented, Elkin’s law will enable Israelis to formulate more educated and informed opinions regarding the activities of these NGOs. Elkin’s law might even inspire European countries to adopt similar legislation.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor, an Israelbased research group instrumental in promoting the Elkin law, has noted that in many European countries taxpayers are regularly denied detailed information on the way their hard-earned euros are put to use. The exact amount of public funds transferred to ideologically partial NGOs operating in Israel (and elsewhere) is often obscured by lumping them together under the vague and highly general category of “funding for international human rights activities.” Steinberg estimates that upwards of 100 million euros in public funds are transferred annually to NGOs operating in Israel.
Our lawmakers should be concerned by the fact that too many NGOs here are intent on presenting a hypercritical, distorted picture of Israel to the world, and receive large sums of money to help them do so. However, the answer to this challenge is not to curtail NGOs’ freedom of expression. Doing so plays into the hands of Israel’s many detractors in that it would constituted self-inflicted damage to one of our biggest assets – Israeli democracy. Israel’s vibrant democracy does not merely survive criticism, it thrives and is improved by it, especially when much of this “criticism” can be exposed for what it really is: disingenuous and ideologically motivated propaganda.