The Israeli public, media and government are consumed in an intense debate on the funding of political non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by foreign governments. Since their initial approval, the proposed bills have figured prominently in newspaper columns and on radio talk shows.
The legislation would place a legal limit on the donations allowed by foreign governments and organizations to an Israeli NGO – capping it at 20,000 shekels, or about $5,200, a year. It would also slap a 45 percent tax rate on the contributions.
Opponents see the measure as an attempt to muzzle dovish groups critical of the government – and as an alarming erosion of the fundamental nature of democracy in Israel.
Q. The proposed bills are about aid by foreign governments to organizations that have an influence in Israel. Isn’t it legitimate to prevent the interference of foreign entities in Israel?
A. The organization that receives the most aid from foreign governments in Israel is the Israel Defense Forces. But does anybody claim that the IDF is an army of foreign agents or foreign countries? Of course not!
Political and civil organizations from across the entire political spectrum fundraise abroad, including Knesset members for their political campaigns.
Friendly countries that enjoy full diplomatic relationships with Israel have traditionally contributed to many projects in Israeli civil society. The aid from these countries has helped establish Israel financially, as well as secure its remarkable growth over the years.
Friendly countries donate to a broad orbit of aid packages, including joint projects in the areas of education, health, research and culture. Countries fund such projects such as these out of a desire to promote values shared by Israel and the Western countries. (I.e. to Hadassah Hospital, Weizmann Instit of Science Research, Theatre Companies as well as organizations promoting human rights and gender equality etc)
Q. So If the donations are from countries friendly to Israel, why the bill to outlaw them?
A. The Israeli government claims it is attempting to ban foreign funding to groups that influence public opinion, and thus can influence policy in Israel (i.e. indirectly interfering in policy decisions.)
However, as PM Netanyahu condemns foreign intervention out-loud, he at the same time reaps the benefits Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper funded solely by a foreign multi-millionaire with a conservative agenda, and that has far-reaching exposure (the newspaper is distributed nationally in Israel, for free).
In stark comparison, Peace Now’s annual budget from European countries equals the cost of the distribution of a free newspaper for one single day. Is this paper not foreign intervention in trying to change the hearts and minds of the Israeli public so to embrace Netanyahu’s policies?
Foreign money influences the public discourse in Israel daily. Many members of Knesset in all parties also enjoy a foreign cash flow; hundreds of thousands of dollars move from the pockets of the world’s wealthiest people in the Europe and the US, to fund election campaigns and primaries in Israel. What kind of back door agreements that are expected to be upheld after the elections, is never revealed.
In addition, settler activities are subjected to no such funding supervision although they are also sponsored by foreign donations. These foreign donations pay for direct changes on the ground, such as building caravans and houses in outposts in the territories – sponsoring actions that actually changes the landscape of Israel, impacts the international political arena, and threatens the future of a two-state solution peace agreement.
Q. How do the foreign governments choose which project to donate to? How transparent is the funding?
A. Indeed, there is a difference between a donation given by a private person and a donation from a state. But, despite the claims of the right-wing, a donation from a state has more oversight and is more transparent than a donation from any foreign private entity.
All prosperous countries around the world sponsor projects that they feel promote universal democratic values that are in line with their ethics, such as freedom of expression, gender equality, human rights, peace and civil rights (which is exactly why many right-wing Israeli groups do not qualify for such sponsorship – as their activities often promote the diametric opposite of these values).
For example, the British Government may decide that in 2012 it will sponsor projects that promote conflict resolution amongst women in war zones. In that case, NGO’s from around the world will be invited to submit proposals for funding, describing their aims and methods of their project. The British govt can then decide if a project from Russia, Poland, Uganda, Congo, or Israel meets their criteria and will receive funding. Once a project is selected the NGO is subjected to rigorous financial scrutiny and must submit full and complete narrative and financial reports.
BUT, whereas a donation from a foreign state is completely transparent and open, has clear motives and can only be used for the specific project activities and not for illegal actions, a donation from a private person does not have to be disclosed, is hidden from public review and the motives often remain unknown.
Q. Why is this seen as anti-left law?
A. Under the new law foreign donations to the IDF, Hadassah Hospital etc will be allowed as will private, non-transparent donations from individuals be permitted to continue (Which conveniently is where most right-wing and settler groups get their funding because their missions are not in line with the democratic principles that funding from foreign government support.)
Donationsfrom foreign individuals are unregulated. Theymay come from any party with a checkbook, including dubious organizations that wish to create instability and conflict in the area by strengthening the most extreme settlers. Unscrutinized foreign money from a private donor may flow into Israel for many reasons: in order to launder money, influence decision-makers, or serve any number of interests known only to the donor.
Most right-wing organizations receive regular funding from evangelical and conservative organizations in the US. The majority of these right-wing organizations also adamantly refuse to reveal their sources of funding to the public, or share lists of donors. The new law will not require they make their funding transparent and available for public scrutiny, yet it will eliminate the transparent foreign funding to Israeli liberal NGOs.
Through this law the government is trying to tell countries ‘you are allowed to donate to one project, but not another because the organization running it opposes government policy.’
It is clear that foreign contributions are only to be disallowed if they are to promote projects that do not fall in line with the government’s agenda. Thus, the public debate is no longer about funding, but the lengths the government will go to in order to ban voices of dissent.
Q. Why are these bills anti-democratic?
A. The purpose of the laws is to silence and neutralize Israeli civil society organizations identified with left-leaning liberal values from operating effectively. All while effectively allowing right-wing organizations in Israel to continue to act freely without any supervision, while funding of their activities will be from monetary sources hidden from the public eye.
The law seeks to take advantage of the parliamentary majority to change the democratic rules of the game and severely curtail the basic right of freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is not only the freedom to write a Facebook status or letter to the editor. Freedom of expression is also the freedom to associate, to create an organization, to raise money and to act effectively to convince and influence the public discourse and provide relevant information to the public.
A true democracy must grant freedom to organizations from both the left and the right to raise money from private parties and states for civil organizations and NGOs. Citizens must be allowed to call for and work for changes in their society unhindered. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. The democratic system as a whole is threatened when voices of dissent are silenced, and only the rights of those whose beliefs are in line with the ruling party are protected.
All liberal democracies engage with their own robust NGO’s that help highlight and present a proper balance of democratic values and societal concerns in the face of political interests led by politicians.
No other democracy in the West has attempted a ban on their own NGO’s as Israel is doing. As a result of this, instead of being hailed as the only democracy in the Middle East; Israel is now viewed by the international Jewish and non-Jewish communities as a country slipping away from acceptable democratic norms. It is particularly shocking to see Israel’s democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics directly after witnessingthe Arab Spring spread across the region.
The government fears for the security of its regime, not the security of the state,” wrote Boaz Okon in Monday’s edition of Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “It therefore exploits its power of legislation to shut people’s mouths.”
Overall there is nothing nefarious about public organizations in a democratic country receiving support from other democracies. The NGO funders are not enemies of Israel and the groups themselves are not trying to subvert the state. Far from it, they work to impove Israel and strenghten it’s democratic foundations.
Instead of the blunt attempts to silence voices of dissent and stifle civil discourse that erodes democracy,the government and Israel would be better served by addressing the issues that are raised by the NGOs in question.
The attempts by right-wing elements to exploit their parliamentary majority in order to undermine Israel’s democratic nature must be stopped; PM Netanyahu is aware these laws are undemocratic and has capitulated on many due to public pressure.
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