Democracy is far more than majority rule. For a society to be truly democratic, it must allow for freedom of expression and open deliberation of issues, as well as the liberty to organize - politically and in other areas of life. Civil-society organizations, for example, are essential tools for challenging the government and legislature in the media, courts and via public protest. Such checks and balances maintain the openness of a society and keep it democratic in spirit, not just on paper.
The shift characterized by last year's election, which resulted in a far-right government, means that the Knesset now has a disturbingly small minority of representatives (about 10 percent ) commonly identified with human rights and social justice. Such a minority will be hard-pressed to mount opposition to the country's growing right-wing trends and policies.
As the political left has shrunk in size and influence, the organizations that promote universal values have become the only clear and systematic opposition to official human rights abuses, whether within Israel proper or in the occupied territories. Thus, HROs have become the new enemies of the Israeli far right. For it, the human-rights agenda is unacceptable and inherently "anti-Israeli," and thus it has a duty to stop it.
The recent attacks are spearheaded by such organizations as NGO Monitor, Israel Academia Monitor and Im Tirtzu, but they apparently enjoy the backing of the government and of many right-wing Knesset members. They constitute a new phenomenon in Israel - civil-society organizations whose main activity is to attack other organizations. Their efforts go beyond the normal give-and-take of democratic discourse, and seems to be directed at halting human-rights advocacy and having the HROs legislated out of existence.
For example, in December 2009, NGO Monitor, together with the Institute for Zionist Strategies, sponsored a conference at the Knesset, ostensibly on the subject of the funding of Israeli NGOs by foreign governments. In reality, it was a platform to launch a general assault on the human rights community. A short time later, seven MKs introduced a bill concerning disclosure requirements for groups receiving support from "a foreign political entity" - a measure that, if passed in its original version, would affect our position as civil-society organizations and ultimately tax our donations. The government has voted to support the bill, which is now under discussion in a ministerial committee.
Effectively, under the guise of transparency, the bill would legislate most of HR advocacy out of existence by negating HROs' status as independent associations, forcing them to present themselves in the public sphere as the recipients of funding from foreign governments.
Of course, there is no such "transparency" initiative being directed at the countless number of right-wing organizations and settler associations that have, over the decades, spent vast amounts of public funds trampling the rights of Palestinians, thwarted peace and scuttled democracy. Although most of these organizations are not funded by foreign governments, a general policy of transparency would require that their use of funding from foreign evangelical groups or the illegal use of funds collected on a tax-deductible basis in the U.S. for the support of settlements in occupied territory also be reported. It is clear that the motivation behind the restrictions on human rights NGOs is to suppress dissent while allowing the settlement enterprise to continue unhindered.
To be clear: The transparency argument is a cover. The HR community cannot be more transparent than it already is. Our agendas, financial records and donor lists are open to all. We annually report this information, including details about funds received from foreign states, to the Amutot (non-profit associations ) Registrar and the tax authorities, and it is freely available on our websites and in our reports. The proposed law answers no pressing policy need and would only change the status of the NGOs in question to their detriment. It seems that organizations such as Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor are most disturbed by the audacity of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (and other NGOs ) in demanding investigations, prosecution and trials of suspected violations of human rights and humanitarian law, and their call for appropriate international action if those suspected of war crimes are not brought to justice in Israel.
Every supporter of human rights, every believer in democratic values and anyone whose beliefs are rooted in the centrality of the rule of law should demand the same. It is right and just that those to whom Israeli democracy is dear will act to protect victims of human rights violations even - and, indeed, perhaps more vigilantly - when the violations are carried out by their own society.
Last month, 25 MKs proposed legislation aimed at outlawing any Israeli organization that is involved in universal jurisdiction activity. The proposed law aims to prohibit the registration of new NGOs, or to close down existing ones, if "there are reasonable grounds for concluding that the association is providing information to foreign entities or is involved in legal proceedings abroad against senior Israeli government officials or Israel Defense Forces officers, for war crimes."
If adopted, the bill would legitimize the suppression of information regarding the commission of such crimes. As such, this legislation has serious implications with respect to international law, the rule of law and Israel's accountability for international crimes. The proposal also conflicts with numerous principles of international law to which Israel is obligated, and totally unwarranted restrictions on the freedom of association and expression, and would deny victims their fundamental right to an effective legal remedy.
Last week, 25 MKs proposed yet another bill, intended to fine any citizen, person or foreign entity that encourages a boycott or a specific sanction against the State of Israel or any individual because of his affiliation with the state or with regions, such as the territories, under Israel's control. For example, it would be illegal to promote a boycott on products from the settlements.
The real danger comes from the collaboration between organizations, politicians and government officials who share the notion that universal values, especially those relating to human rights, are left-wing - and, therefore, anti-Israel. What has emerged out of this collusion is a situation in which these organizations level charges against human rights defenders and the state files the indictment and prosecutes us. These efforts pose a serious and immediate threat to the goal of a lasting and sustainable HR agenda in Israel.
Dr. Ishai Menuchin is executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. This piece is based on an address he gave in June before the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights.
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