NGO woes

We wonder whether legislation is the right way to combat NGOs that question the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the conference of Israel ambassadors and heads of missions in Europe in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu at the conference of Israel ambassadors and heads of missions in Europe in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
In recent days the government has launched a new round of activity designed to block the influence of foreign, primarily European, state funding of left-wing NGOs, some of which are connected to Palestinian terrorist groups or seek to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.
In July, the government passed legislation that outs NGOs operating in Israel that receive at least half of their budgets from foreign governments. That legislation resembled a law passed in Hungary in June under Prime Minister Viktor Orban that earmarks NGOs receiving foreign funding, particularly those supported by George Soros, a Hungarian-born US Jewish billionaire and philanthropist who promotes a left-wing agenda around the world, and an anti-Zionist agenda in Israel.
Now, in two initiatives, the government seeks to crack down further. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a gathering of Christian journalists at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that the he intends to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate Israeli NGOs that receive funding from foreign governments. In a cabinet meeting the same day he likened the step to the ongoing US congressional committee investigation into purported Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Then on Monday, Channel 2 reported that the government is advancing a bill that would prevent the operations of left-wing NGOs critical of the IDF. Breaking the Silence, an organization that gathers mostly anonymous testimonies of IDF soldiers reporting supposed human rights abuses, would most likely be affected.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who is drafting the legislation at the request of Netanyahu, told Army Radio on Tuesday that he hopes the new NGO bill, which will soon be presented for a vote, will not just be declarative, as has been the case so far, rather it will stop the activities of NGOs that seek to incriminate IDF soldiers in international tribunals.
Meddling by foreign elites in the internal affairs of democratically elected governments is a phenomenon not confined to Israel. It is particularly problematic in Europe, where EU officials and members of other supranational bodies, courts and NGOs seek to restrain and “correct” parliaments, congresses and elected officials. This partially explains Brexit; the failure of mainstream left-wing parties in France, Poland, Spain, and Labour’s transformation in Britain; and the rise of populist parties campaigning on issues neglected by existing parties.
In Israel, democratically elected politicians such as Netanyahu, Levin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and the millions of voters who put them in office, are justifiable perturbed by the activities of a host of agenda-driven NGOs, many of which regularly justify Palestinian terrorism while ignoring human rights abuses committed by Palestinian rulers in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank against their own people. Instead, they focus exclusively on besmirching Israel in international forums, harming Israel’s ability to defend itself by bringing charges of war crimes against IDF officers, and undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.
These are Israeli NGOs that enjoy almost no grassroots support in Israeli society and rely for their existence on foreign funding. If representatives of these NGOs were to run for election in Israel’s atmosphere of free speech, free assembly and a free press, they would not receive enough votes to enter the Knesset.
Still, we wonder whether legislation is the right way to combat these NGOs. Ultimately, cracking down on NGOs – even those that espouse abhorrent positions on Israel’s right to exist – amounts to the curtailing of free speech.
Do we really want to pass laws that attempt to regulate which NGOs’ messages are legal and which are not? Who would be entrusted to decide? Forcing NGOs to provide information on their funding sources is one thing, policing the speech of NGO officials is another. If NGO officials engage in terrorist activity or mobilize others to commit terrorism, they should be prosecuted under existing laws.
A better way of stopping the foreign state funding of these NGOs is through dialogue with the heads of European states. Today more than ever Europeans are sensitive to the undemocratic meddling of foreign elites in their internal affairs. They are likely to be attentive to Israeli pleas for more oversight on where European taxpayers’ hard-earned money is put to use.
Passing laws that prevent NGOs from criticizing Israeli policies only gives the impression that Israel has something to hide, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.