NGO Bill: Assault on Democracy or Legitimate Effort to Guard Against Foreign Intervention?

The controversial non-profit bill, applying almost exclusively to left-wing NGOs, got the backing of a ministerial panel on Sunday and is expected to pass in some form.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Noam Moscowitz

A bill that would require non-profit organizations that get most of their funding from foreign governments to disclose that in contacts with Israeli officials passed a major legislative hurdle on Sunday, receiving the backing of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Backers of the bill say openly that it is aimed at left-wing NGOs that publicize their criticism of Israeli policy abroad as well as at home.

Approval by the committee means the bill now has the backing of the governing coalition, making it likely that it will pass in some form, although it could be subject to changes before final passage.

Sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Habayit Hayehudi party, the bill is widely seen as an effort to draw attention to left-wing organizations that get funding from foreign governments. The activities of left-wing organizations have been in the headlines recently in part over funding some of them receive from foreign governments, notably European ones, a situation that critics call an improper effort by the governments to influence the Israeli public agenda. Opponents of the legislation call it an anti-democratic attempt to stigmatize left-wing groups and point out that right-wing Israeli non-profit organizations also get substantial funding from abroad, although that money is not from foreign governments, coming instead from individual donors abroad, notably from Diaspora Jewish donors.

Protesters demonstrate outside Minister Shaked's home in Tel Aviv, December 26, 2015.
Moti Milrod

As currently drafted, the bill proposed by Shaked would require representatives of organizations receiving over half their support from foreign governments to wear tags with the name and the group they represent when they attend Knesset sessions, as is currently required of Knesset lobbyists. Violations of the law would be punished by barring the representatives' access to the Knesset. The bill would also require the groups to disclose in their official publicity that they get more than half their funds from foreign governments, along with disclosing the donor governments by name. Violations of this provision would be subject to a 29,000 shekel (about $7,500) fine.

"Any country wishing to protect its sovereignty must put limits on intervention by foreign entities," Shaked said, adding that false information spread by non-profit groups "pretending to represent Israel's interests but which actually are financed by foreign countries that exploit these groups to suit their agenda" constitute a weapon directed against Israel.

But opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) called the bill "a serious stain on democracy," while his party colleague Nachman Shai warned that it would provide "ammunition to those calling for Israel's isolation.

At the beginning of the month, four senior lawmakers from Germany warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that advancement of the legislation would make it harder for Israel's allies in Germany to aid it in the face of boycotts or verbal attacks.

Tzipi Livni, co-leader with Herzog of the Zionist Union, has submitted her own bill that would require disclosure by non-profits that get sizeable foreign government support but also require groups that depend upon individual donors from abroad to disclose it, in practice also imposing legislative regulation on right-wing groups. Shaked's office said including recipients of contributions from individual donors from abroad was considered but was not pursued because of legal hurdles that it presented.

Im Tirtzu vs. Breaking the Silence

The corrosively anti-leftist group Im Tirtzu recently made headlines for a video it released stigmatizing leaders of left-wing organizations receiving substantial foreign government funding as foreign "moles."

Breaking the Silence, a group founded by Israel Defense Force veterans to expose abuses by the Israeli army in the territories, has been a particular focus of public criticism. Representatives of the group have been barred by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon from sending representatives onto army bases and by Education Minister Naftali Bennett from appearing in the country's public schools. The Breaking the Silence website states that among the financial support that it receives are funds from the governments of Norway, Spain and Switzerland, as well as a number of foreign private foundations.

Prior to the vote in the ministerial committee, MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said he could not vote in favor of the bill as currently drafted.

"As someone who has worked his entire life to advance the State of Israel's foreign affairs, my conscience does not allow me to vote for the non-profits bill as it is drafted today," Oren said. "The non-profits bill that is reaching a vote at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation today is a bill that could harm Israel's foreign relations and image."

"I have no doubt," he added, "that left-wing non-profits such as Breaking the Silence are working to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and it is our duty as lawmakers to reveal their funding sources to the public. But such one-sided exposure, which ignores the funding sources of extreme-right non-profits, might play exactly into the hands of those elements that are trying to boycott us."