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Canadians divided on Israeli ‘NGO Bill’

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Knesset
The Knesset building

Transparency and accountability, or a ham-handed attempt to stifle free speech and intimidate?

Those are two of the perspectives offered by Canadian observers of Israel’s new law that requires non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to report the funding they receive from foreign governments. Critics say the law is aimed squarely at one segment of Israeli society – the progressive left, which is sometimes critical of government policies, while ignoring private funding that right-wing organizations receive.

Meanwhile in Israel, a prominent critic of foreign funding of NGOs says the law, though largely symbolic, is counterproductive in that it gives the country’s critics ammunition to charge it with stifling free speech.

As if on cue, the European Union (EU) said the new Israeli legislation risks “undermining” Israel’s democratic ideals.

The law in question, the Transparency Requirements for Parties Supported by Foreign State Entities Bill, known as the NGO Bill, was passed in the Knesset on July 11 by a vote of 57-48. It requires NGOs that receive more than half their income from foreign governments to report that fact each year to the Justice Ministry, which will publish a list of the NGOs.

In its explanatory preface, the authors of the law say it seeks “to deal with the phenomenon of NGOs who represent in Israel, in a non-transparent manner, the outside interests of foreign states, while pretending to be a domestic organization concerned with the interests of the Israeli public.”

According to a government of Israel news release, “NGOs that are on the list must note this fact on their websites for the rest of the year. They must also note this fact on any publications related to the NGO’s advocacy that are readily available to the public, as well as in their communications with public servants and elected officials.

“They are also required to inform the chair of a Knesset committee that they are on the list whenever they appear before said committee.”

In Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), applauded passage of the bill. “The legislation is a useful way to increase the level of transparency regarding relationships and sources of support from which important contributors (i.e., NGOs) benefit,” said CIJA chief executive officer Shimon Fogel. “Given their influential role in helping shape public opinion as well as their contribution to the public policy debate, greater understanding of their connections, both local and global, is a positive development.”

Fogel suggested that the EU’s “support for particular NGOs and programs is a reflection of their support for a particular perspective and set of policies that would help drive Israel toward their preferred outcome. The legislation just passed actually doesn’t change anything about the level of support, the direction of support or sources of support from which Israeli NGOs can benefit. It only puts into place new requirements about disclosing the source of support. How can anyone object to the process that provides the public with more information? How can anyone, especially those on the progressive side of the spectrum be opposed to greater transparency?”

JSpace Canada, however, said the bill only addresses NGOs that are funded by governments, not other sources “NGOs that rely on funding from foreign individuals and organizations are exempt. Unequal transparency is not transparency,” said JSpace Canada spokesperson Danny Schild. “We are therefore concerned that the purpose of this legislation is to marginalize certain NGOs, and especially target progressive NGOs that work to monitor human rights and oppose the occupation.”

“We believe that aside from the inconvenience of adapting to the new rules, the progressive NGOs at which this bill is aimed will not suffer long-term harm. Many of the positions of those NGOs have substantial support among Israeli citizens. Israel’s democratic underpinnings remain strong despite the efforts of some right-wing coalition members to weaken voices of dissent. We hope that this legislation will be challenged in the courts or repealed when there is a change of government,” Schild added.

New Israel Fund of Canada (NIF) did not respond to requests for a comment, but its July 2016 newsletter addresses the bill extensively.

“Organizations will now face significant hurdles raising funds from international sources,” the newsletter states.

“For many, that will mean an uphill battle to raise funds for annual budgets and, likely, pared down services to Israel’s poorest. Because the NGOs targeted are disproportionately human rights organizations, what has been positioned as improving ‘transparency’ has instead been condemned for weakening Israel’s democracy.

“Indeed, this law is not about transparency. It’s about intimidation. This bill aims to place the mark of Cain on human rights organizations, characterizing them as enemies of the state who purportedly take direction from foreign governments. Such branding invites potential targeting from critics far and wide,” the NIF newsletter asserts.

Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, has been critical of European government funding of Israeli NGOs, but he does not support the bill. Contacted by phone in Israel, Steinberg said the bill is symbolic and politically motivated to respond to a grassroots outcry at foreign interference, but it could be used by the country’s critics to tarnish Israel’s image.

NGOs already had to report funds they had received from abroad, he noted.

Steinberg suggested the bill was passed because Israeli legislators are frustrated that foreign countries – the EU and the United States – are using Israel as a playing field to fund NGOs that “attack the Israeli government.” The EU alone allocated 120 million euros a year to support 45 Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, dwarfing funds allocated in other parts of the world, he said.

Some promote BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) while accusing Israel of war crimes. Others deny the right of Israel to exist or support terror, Steinberg said.

Steinberg suggested a more effective way to address NGO funding is by holding dialogue with European parliamentarians about the money they are contributing. Many are not aware of the nature of the organizations receiving funding, and in the last few months, parliaments in Holland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have taken a critical look at the recipients, with the Dutch parliament adopting a motion calling for an end to the funding of groups that promote BDS.

Meanwhile, Fogel noted that “those who are protesting are perhaps doing so because they prefer light not be directed at the association of various NGOs with foreign support… The scandal emerging with respect to the ‘One Voice’ funding by the U.S. State Department is a good, current example.” One Voice is an Israeli NGO that received $350,000 from the U.S. State Department and used some of the funds to oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in last year’s Israeli parliamentary elections, according to a report released on July 12 by the U.S. Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations.

“Shouldn’t Israelis preparing for the election have been made aware of who was funding an organization dedicated to the defeat of an Israeli political party?” Fogel added. “Without making any partisan comment, I think the real threat to democracy rests with those who can engage in the political process without having to disclose the source of their support.”