The push to regulate NGOs is consistent with democracy

Israeli NGOs complaining about regulations over their activities should appreciate that Israeli laws are laxer than those in North America.

Leftist Protest TA 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Leftist Protest TA 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Israeli politicians such as Amir Peretz (Labor) and Tzipi Livni (Kadima) say it is “antidemocratic,” ”fascist,“ “a blow to democracy” and evidence of “a dark dictatorship” to exercise control over political NGOs by regulating their dealings with foreign bodies. If so, the same charges apply to the governments of the United States and Canada. Both North American democracies regulate foreign governments and foreign organizations that desire to influence public opinion. In fact, the governments of the US and Canada curb the political activities of their NGOs to a far greater extent than does the government of Israel.
In the US, the curbing of foreign influence in domestic affairs began in earnest in the 1930s, when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration realized that American Nazis – then a potent political force – were being funded by Hitler’s Germany. The result was the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938.
As the United States Department of Justice website matter-of-factly explains, “The purpose of FARA is to insure that the US government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information and the identity of persons attempting to influence US public opinion, policy, and laws.”
FARA’s pre-World War II purpose – to expose “German propaganda agents” – has since become a fixture of US policy, used after the war to expose Communist propaganda as well as propaganda by foreigners, whether their intentions are nefarious or naive. Israel earlier this year passed legislation modelled on FARA, but with much weaker disclosure requirements – quarterly reports that few are likely to see.
Disclosure under FARA, in contrast, provides for an unmistakable, real-time identification – when a speech is given, or a film aired, the audience is entitled to know where the presenter or his money is coming from, literally. This right-to-know provision was tested in the courts in the 1980s, after the US government required foreign-funded documentaries it deemed propaganda (in the term’s non-pejorative sense of advocacy) to bear the label “foreign political propaganda” when shown to US audiences.
WAS IT censorship or a violation of free speech to force foreign-funded documentaries, including the 1982 anti-war Academy Award winner, If You Love This Planet, to conspicuously display this label? It was not, ruled the Supreme Court of the United States in an unambiguous 1987 decision. To the contrary, the Supreme Court saw value in public disclosure that spotlighted material from those who might have an alien agenda, “so that the government and the people of the United States may be informed of the identity of such persons and may appraise their statements and actions in the light of their associations and activities.”
Today, critics of the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), of foreigners associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and of al-Jazeera English are employing FARA to require disclosure and conspicuous labeling of foreignfunded activities.
FARA, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000 plus five years in prison, is but one part of an extensive legal framework that serves to limit the activities of the various types of NGOs that can operate in the US. NGOs are also regulated by tax law that bans tax-exempt charitable NGOs from any partisan political activities and, with minor exceptions, from activities promoting or opposing legislative efforts.
These NGOs cannot receive funds for such political advocacy and they also cannot disburse funds abroad to foreigners for such political advocacy.
The rules that apply to Canadian taxexempt charitable NGOs are broadly similar to those that exist in the US.
For this reason, politically active Israeli NGOs primarily rely on Europeans, not on either Americans or Canadians, for their funding. If American or Canadian NGOs supported political activities in Israeli, they would be in contravention of their own laws. European NGOs have no such restrictions; they are free to support foreign causes that have their government’s blessing.
Israeli NGOs who complain about onerous regulations over their activities should appreciate that Israeli laws are laxer than those in North America, and that the trend, in North America at least, is in the direction of more disclosure, more accountability, and more curbs, including on the ability of foreigners to skew political debates.
A US court case just this August, involving an Israeli-Canadian woman and a Canadian man, provides the latest step in the process of reserving decisionmaking in a democracy for the citizens of that democracy.
The couple, US residents who wanted to be active in US politics (he for Obama, she for Republican causes), sued for the right to print and distribute political flyers, to contribute money to political candidates, and to contribute money to an American NGO that takes political stands. The three-judge court denied all requests.
“It is fundamental to the definition of our national political community that foreign citizens do not have a constitutional right to participate in, and thus may be excluded from, activities of democratic self-government,” the court ruled. “It follows, therefore, that the United States has a compelling interest [in] preventing foreign influence over the US political process.”
In a case last year, the Supreme Court noted that the compelling interest dates back to America’s founding, when the framers of the US constitution had “an obsession with foreign influence derived from a fear that foreign powers and individuals had no basic investment in the well-being of the country.”
The European Union, the European nations, and the European NGOs who fund Israeli NGOs have no basic investment in Israel’s well-being, yet they profoundly influence Israel’s political process. The citizens of the American democracy would not stand for such foreign interference; neither would the citizens of the Canadian democracy. The wonder is that the citizens of the Israeli democracy have permitted it for so long.