Middle Israel: The disunited Israel appeal

A bill aimed at exposing foreign states’ aid to political causes is likely to intensify the private foreign funding that has been helping divide Israel for 40 years.

Ayelet Shaked holds introductory press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)
Ayelet Shaked holds introductory press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem
(photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)
"When it comes to money,” said Voltaire, “everyone is of one faith.”
That may have been true in the great thinker’s time, a light-year before money became a general in the war of ideas. Now, as reflected by the brouhaha surrounding a bill that last week moved from the cabinet to the Knesset, ideological funding on both ends of the political spectrum has become a serious problem for the Jewish state.
Initiated by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the bill requires nonprofits that receive more than half their budgets from foreign states to report and detail this funding in their official documentation, and to have their representatives wear special badges when in the Knesset, or anywhere else where they would be attending a formal forum of elected officials.
The badges would be issued by the Nonprofits Registrar, the Justice Ministry department that oversees all nonprofits’ finances.
In a minimally attended Ministerial Legislation Committee session, the bill’s introduction was approved Sunday by four of that forum’s 12 members: Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who were physically present, and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay (Shas) and Science, Technology and Space Minister Ophir Akunis (Likud), who submitted their written approvals ahead of the meeting.
The bill, which thus proceeds to the Knesset plenary and then to the Law Committee, triggered an outcry from its intended targets, and is also treated as a powder keg by some in the coalition. That is apparently why Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) did not show up for the ministerial committee’s meeting, and that is why his faction’s Michael Oren said he would work in the Law Committee to make changes in the bill.
Outside the coalition, the bill was derided as a gateway to autocracy.
“Shaked will forever bear a mark of Cain,” warned former Labor Party minister Uzi Baram, who claimed the justice minister opted for legislation as a way to muzzle rather than debate political rivals.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog arrived in the Knesset wearing a badge that read, “A Jew doesn’t mark a Jew, a Jew doesn’t mark humans,” paraphrasing last decade’s “A Jew doesn’t expel a Jew,” the bumper sticker that animated the campaign against the retreat from Gaza.
On Mount Scopus, Hebrew University law professor Alon Harel faced his students wearing a sign that read “planted,” an allusion to the charge that foreign-funded nonprofits represent foreigners out to undermine the Jewish state.
For her part, Shaked made no secret of her hope that the bill will affect left-wing rather than rightwing nonprofits.
“We ask the countries that want to be involved in Israel’s internal affairs to do so openly,” she said, “using diplomatically normal means.”
THE POLITICAL FIELD has been attracting nongovernmental organizations for some 40 years, as the future of the West Bank and, until last decade, the Gaza Strip came to dominate Israel’s political dilemmas.
The emergence in the mid-1970s of the extra-parliamentary Gush Emunim on the Right and Peace Now on the Left soon resulted in enlistment of donors overseas.
What began with Jewish money was soon joined by non-Jewish money, and what started off with individuals was in due course joined by governments, either directly or indirectly.
On the Right, individuals such as Miami-based businessman Irving Moskowitz have funded Israel-based NGOs such as the Ir David Foundation (Elad), which buys properties in east Jerusalem and settles Jews in them, and Ateret Kohanim, which does the same thing within the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. The late Cyril Stein, a British gambling tycoon and hotelier, and Australian mining entrepreneur Joseph Gutnick also reportedly helped right-wing NGOs buy West Bank real estate, and Las Vegas-based Sheldon Adelson donated to Ariel University and invested in right-wing media.
Left-leaning causes are believed to have enjoyed along the years the support of Diaspora Jews such as Charles Bronfman, George Soros, Michael Steinhardt and David Geffen. While these individuals’ political involvement has been low key, the New York-based New Israel Fund is aiding in broad daylight a range of causes that the government sees as provocative.
Founded in 1979 by American Jews eager to improve Arab-Jewish relations, the NIF started off as relatively consensual, a by-product of the euphoric days when peace with Egypt was young, the First Lebanon War was distant, and most West Bank settlements had yet to be born. Since then, like Moskowitz and his colleagues, the NIF gradually slid into the thick of the controversies that have come to divide Israeli society. While active also in consensual causes like empowering Ethiopian Israelis, the NIF is now seen as driven mainly by politically controversial causes.
The organization, which has offices in six countries and last year reported $31 million worth of activities, contributes to a broad range of NGOs that seek to treat assorted aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
These include Breaking the Silence, which helps IDF soldiers report alleged human rights abuses; Sikkuy, which promotes Israeli Arabs’ equality of opportunity; B’Tselem, which aims to expose Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians; Adalah, which helps Israeli Arabs struggle for what it presents as their legal minority rights; Yesh Din, which promotes human rights in the West Bank; Machsom Watch, which monitors roadblocks in the West Bank; and Physicians for Human Rights, which brings together medical workers from both sides of the conflict in order to jointly struggle against the “occupation.”
Proverbially, the NIF-backed Ir Amim, which focuses on Jerusalem and takes groups on tours of its Jewish-Arab flash points, effectively takes one part of American Jewish money and uses it to expose what is being done with another part of American Jewish money, by the Ir David Foundation.
Even while this uniquely Jewish showdown remained internal, its protagonists perceived each other’s foreign financiers as illegitimate meddlers and strategic threats to the Jewish state’s future. Yet things climbed a new plateau when it emerged that European governments donated to Peace Now, for instance NIS 136,000 and NIS 43,000, respectively, from the UK and Finland in 2015’s second quarter.
Israeli nonprofits have to report the sources of their income, lest they become vehicles for money laundering and misuse of public funds. The question therefore is not what income should get reported, but what income should be made public.
The Ir David Foundation, for instance, received a special exemption from publicly detailing its donors after convincing the Nonprofits Registrar that such exposure might make their donors the targets of terrorist attacks.
With or without connection to this fear, the bill ignores private funding. Instead, it targets funding from foreign governments, a source that right-wing causes don’t expect to tap, and left-wing causes have a hard time justifying, even to parts of their own support base.
The bill’s opponents intend to fight it by spotlighting private foreign financing of groups like Im Tirtzu, which exposed what it saw as academic anti-Zionist bias and NIF-backed testimonies that fed anti-Israeli UN reports. Im Tirtzu reportedly received for a while part of its funding from American Evangelical pastor John Hagee.
This strategy of broadening the lens to all foreign funding is what MK Dov Henin (United List) tried to promote when he stood in the plenary this week and said he was about to read a list of the Ir David Foundation’s foreign funders, only to then stare at the plenary saying nothing, thus driving home the point that the government is helping this nonprofit conceal its foreign funding.
Similarly, MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) said she will present a counter-bill that will ban foreign donations for candidates’ primary election campaigns. Such a strategy is probably a nonstarter, as foreign donors help fund many opposition candidates, beginning with Yacimovich’s boss, Herzog.
The governmental donations, at the same time, are indeed different, and neither their sponsors nor their recipients seem to have a better strategy than to try to change the subject, the latter by deriding private foreign donations, and the former by claiming that the bill is not about sovereignty but about free speech.
At any rate, the bill already has successfully exposed foreign governments’ meddling in what Middle Israelis see as their internal affairs. It does not take a settler to ask how, for instance, Britain would have reacted if a foreign government had sided with, let alone paid, the campaign for Scotland’s secession, or how Spain would have reacted had a foreign government helped finance Catalonia’s struggle for independence.
The governmental funding to which the bill has turned public attention will probably not last, but the private funding will continue and likely intensify, as a counterreaction.
Israel’s friends abroad, from both sides of the political divide, may then do well to realize that while their financial infusions over the decades have failed to reinvent the situations they set out to affect, their combined effect has been to deepen Israel’s internal divides.