Anti-ngo legislation in Israel: a first step toward silencing dissent

For several years, ultra-nationalist Israeli parties have attempted to restrict foreign financing to domestic NGOs, much as have governments in Kenya,IndiaRussia, and elsewhere.

On December 15, 2013, a new bill that would penalize domestic NGOs at odds with Israeli government policy cleared the first legislative hurdles in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

This proposed law takes aim at Israeli groups who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, along with NGOs sympathetic to attempts to indict and prosecute Israeli officials in other countries, known as “universal jurisdiction.”

Thankfully, the proposed bill will probably never become law. The Israeli Justice Minister has already announced her intent to appeal, and the Israeli Attorney General says he would be unable to defend the bill in the Israeli High Court.

This latest attempt to muzzle Israeli NGOs who do not parrot the government’s line is not trivial, however. It is a transparent attempt to limit freedom of speech, a hallmark of liberal democracy, as both the Israeli Justice Minister and Attorney General observed.

We’re used to it. The New Israel Fund, which I lead, and the human rights organizations we support, have been beating back similar attempts to put us out of business since at least 2010. While this particular bill may spare our own grantees, because we ourselves do not fund organizations that participate in global BDS or universal jurisdiction cases, we still see these repeated attempts to muzzle NGOs as dangerous to Israel, albeit in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

It’s unusual for a progressive American to quote Ayn Rand, but here’s some wisdom that crosses ideological lines. “Don’t bother to examine a folly, just ask yourself what it accomplishes.” In this case, it’s worth looking more closely at the bill and at what might seem to be less insidious but related proposals, to better understand the actual agenda of Israel’s ultra-nationalist right.

First, let’s dispense with the idea now circulated by some right-wing pundits that the bill would only protect Israel from interference from foreign governments, who already protect themselves from similar overseas funding. Here in the U.S., foreign governments fund NGOs working against our comparatively common use of capital punishment, without restriction or comment. In Europe, circumstances differ by country, but one of the European nations that most harshly restricts foreign funding to its human rights community is Russia, hardly a democracy for Israel to emulate. European nations, individually and as the EU, do not prohibit foreign funding for specific kinds of speech or action that is not already forbidden by criminal law. It is illegal, for example, for a foreign government to fund Holocaust denial in Germany, but that speech is already proscribed by the German criminal code.

Second, Israel is almost alone among democracies in permitting private foreign funding of politicians running in their party primaries. I admit, to an American this is bit strange. Why are wealthy Jewish-Americans such as Sheldon Adelson shaping the Israeli political agenda through candidate support for political parties such as the Likud, as well as those located even further to the right?

Support for individual Israeli candidates by foreign millionaires is certainly not the only issue. Radical Jewish settler organizations and other ultra-nationalist Israeli NGOs enjoy millions of dollars in support from right-wing Jews and Christian evangelicals overseas. The newly proposed legislation, however, does not address those immense transfers of funds and influence.

But most important is a clause that was just removed from the bill, which was a dead give-away to what its backers really want. The anti-NGO legislation originally penalized organizations that “opposed Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The inclusion of this clause was not a one-off, but central to the intent of those who would remake Israel in a very different image.

Currently, there is another proposal, now under legal analysis in the Justice Ministry, which would actually attempt to concretize the Jewish nature of the state into legislation with the weight of what is called in Israel a “Basic Law,” which serves as the country’s de facto constitution.

Some versions of this Jewish-state legislation have attempted to position Israel’s Jewish identity as more important, in terms of what the state is permitted to do, than its democracy. In other words, an Israeli citizen’s religio-ethnic identity would be treated under this law as a determining factor in deciding whether he or she was entitled to equal protection or recourse under Israeli law or in Israeli courts.

Such a formulation, under which Israeli Jews would have more rights than Israeli non-Jews - and under which discrimination against Israeli non-Jews would be formalized -  would indeed permanently resolve the creative tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature. It would do so, however, at the unbearable cost of finally establishing Israel as a racist and discriminatory regime.

Even if the more extreme versions of these proposals never see the light of day, and even if moderates in the Israeli legislature continue to oppose the legal principal of “Jewish-before-democratic,” the ultra-nationalist’s backing for this idea tells us all we need to know.

A state that defines itself as a bastion of ethnic privilege does not have to make peace, give up settlements and territory, or consider the rights of non-Jews within its supposedly divinely-decreed borders. A state with an ethnic definition that overlaps substantially with a particular articulation of a religious creed will never achieve a civil sphere or freedom of conscience and religion, even for its own majority citizens. And a state that demands that its adversary – the Palestinians -- recognize it as legally identical to its majority population is asking the impossible.

Let us not forget that over 20% of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish. They are primarily Palestinian Muslims and Christians, but also include Beduin Muslims, Druze, Circassians, Samaritans, Bahai, and more. These figures do not include the millions of Palestinians and other non-Jews living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Golan Heights. 

That, then, is what this folly is about. Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers and their supporters have looked for a legal foundation to prevent the state from ever ceding control of an inch of the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Some of them have decided that their best bet to prevent a peace agreement is to transform Israel into an ethnically homogenous state, untethered from the requirements of liberal democracy. This Israel of their dreams is unabashedly and permanently militaristic, xenophobic, repressive of dissent and dismissive of universal norms of human and civil rights.

Putting a few radical NGOs out of business isn’t the long-term objective here, although from the ultra-nationalists’ standpoint, that surely wouldn’t hurt. The real goal is to eventually define Israel’s “Jewish-and-democratic” formulation in a way that would silence opposition and impose impossible strictures on freedom of speech and minority rights, and it is this objective to which attention must be paid.

Only vigilant attention and expanding public understanding and support for Israeli democracy will prevent the loss of the Israel envisioned by its founders, intended to embody the best Jewish and universal values: Democratic, egalitarian, and free.

A version of this article first appeared in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz.