Kadima MKs waving black flags - Emil Salman - 15112011
Kadima MKs waving black flags in protest over bills passed by Knesset last month. Photo by Emil Salman
Text size

Israel’s government has ratified a law that limits external funding to political organizations that are not co-funded by Israel’s government. The proponents of this law say that NGOs only funded from abroad reflect the attempt of foreign countries to influence Israeli politics with a left-wing agenda.

The proposed law is likely to fall on issues of principle. But its contents show the ruling coalition’s profoundly limited understanding of democracy. Effectively, it attempts to shut down funding for any organization that does not fit the government’s views, not extreme leftwing organizations as is implied: this law endangers even the functioning of the Peres Center for Peace. In other words: the ruling coalition wants to shut down any opposition.

Lieberman has claimed that the law is necessary, because foreign governments try to meddle in Israel’s sovereignty. This is either cynical, or shows a total misunderstanding of the very idea of an NGO, and human rights organizations: these are precisely meant to reign in the sovereignty of individual states, and to preclude human rights abuses.

International human rights organizations like Amnesty International are mostly funded internationally. They are based on the ideal that humanity as a whole has responsibility for what is done to humans everywhere. Most of them came into being after WWII, primarily because of the holocaust. Humanity decided that the power of states must be curtailed to make human rights abuses more difficult. Unsurprisingly, Jews played a central role in setting up and strengthening the organizations that supervise what states do.

Given the tragedies of Jewish history, I find it offensive both as a human being and as a Jew that Israeli parliamentarians attack human rights organizations. How different would Jewish history have been, if such organizations had flooded the world with information about what Nazis were doing to Jews from 1933 onwards!

Of course states like Iran and Syria do not want the world to know what they do to their own citizens; this is why they try to shut down the Internet and don’t allow access to human rights organizations.

I am, of course, not comparing Israel to Iran or Syria, and unlike these tyrannical regimes, Israel should welcome public scrutiny of its actions. If Israel does not infringe on human rights, it has nothing to fear from human rights organizations. If it does, Israeli citizens and the international community should know about it.

While some human rights organizations, like the UN Council of Human Rights, indeed have a deplorable history of anti-Israeli bias, claiming that the idea of human rights is used specifically against Israel is preposterous: human rights organizations have indicted countries ranging from Saudi Arabia and Iran to China. But they have also criticized the U.S. for its practices of extraordinary rendition, in which torture is outsourced to other countries, as well as for maintaining Guantanamo detention camp.

Organizations like B’tselem and Shovrim Shtika are trying to bring facts to public attention. Their core value is that Israel’s citizenry needs to know what is happening in the West Bank. Then, in open discussion, Israelis will have to determine whether they believe that expropriation of Palestinian land, limiting Palestinian’s mobility, uprooting of Palestinian olive trees and other human rights violations are acceptable or not.

Lieberman claims that human rights organizations misrepresent the facts about Israel. If this is indeed the case, it must be proven by evidence. Trying to shut down these organizations will not get us closer to the truth. But is it a truth that Lieberman cares about?

The current coalition has a very limited conception of democracy as rule by the majority. It seems to forget that a legitimately elected majority that crushes minority rights makes democracy illiberal. But maybe this is not an oversight. Avigdor Lieberman’s actions indicate that he sees liberal democracy and its institutions as a nuisance rather than an asset. He and his partners in the Likud like Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Danny Danon are drunk with the idea of Jewish power and sovereignty: they want to crush any interference with this power, whether from within or from without.

Israel’s right wing politics has changed catastrophically for the worse, as Rubi Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset said in a recent speech at the Likud headquarters. The current coalition’s attack on NGOs is not just directed at the remainders of Israel’s left. It is an attack on Israel’s character as an open society, on the critical discussion without which democracy is a sham. Only the light of truth can guide democracies responsibly, otherwise we move towards totalitarian regime structures for which the truth is an inconvenience to be manipulated for the purpose of consolidating unlimited power.