Bring on the Transparency

The government of Israel is waging an aggressive campaign to suppress internal dissent. Most of its targets have been organizations operating in the occupied territories, and the campaigners would have us believe that they are acting in the interest of "national security." However, a closer look indicates that they are motivated by a general disrespect for the role of civil society in a democracy. Any NGO in the government's way seems to have become fair game; indeed, officials have even started calling refugee-aid groups a fifth column.

Civil servants are playing an increasingly active role in this effort. A notable example is Ron Dermer, chief of policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office, who led the charge this past summer to suppress any group that dared to advocate on behalf of Palestinian human rights or to question the Israel Defense Forces' conduct during the Gaza campaign.

Dermer, whose legislative initiative to ban funding of Israeli human rights organizations by allied governments stalled in September, has now passed the ball to a political ally: Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. This organization has now partnered with the Institute for Zionist Strategies, led by Israel Harel, a founder of the Gush Emunim settler movement.

Steinberg is savvier than Dermer. Instead of a ban, he advocates "funding transparency." Next Tuesday, he is organizing a Knesset conference to "debate" the issue. Israel's beleaguered human rights activists are bracing for yet another round of demonization and delegitimization.

In formulating a response, some have argued for an appeal to reason. They want to explain to Steinberg and his organization that the suppression campaign is ill-advised and destructive; that it threatens to put Israel in the same camp as Putin's Russia and other autocracies; and that it may provoke a retaliatory call by a European public, already dangerously hostile, to cut critical funding to Israeli hospitals, universities and R&D projects.

This approach is commendable, but futile. NGO Monitor is not an objective watchdog: It is a partisan operation that suppresses its perceived ideological adversaries through the sophisticated use of McCarthyite techniques - blacklisting, guilt by association and selective filtering of facts.

If Steinberg really cares about "transparency," why does he not begin in his own backyard? Breaking the Silence, a frequent subject of his organization's wrath, has financial reports for 2006-2008 posted on its Web site. NGO Monitor's site lists only one small U.S. charity as its current funder, providing no links for further information. The Institute for Zionist Strategies' site says nothing about its funding.

Here is another example of NGO Monitor's intellectual dishonesty: A central theme of its recent critiques has been of NGO "lawfare," achieving "political" goals through the courts. There are at least three examples of pro-settler Israeli NGOs engaged in "lawfare," as defined by NGO Monitor: the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, the Israel Law Center and Regavim, but you will not find even an acknowledgment of their existence among the hundreds of documents on its Web site.

We have another option. Steinberg's and Dermer's cynicism has created an opportunity to dismantle the power structure that forces Israelis to continue defending Palestinian human rights, 42 years after the "temporary" occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began.

If Israeli neoconservatives really want "transparency," why not take them at their word? We could propose to NGO Monitor and its allies that we launch a bipartisan campaign to enact legislation mandating high standards of financial transparency for all local NGOs. This would entail listing all donations of, say, NIS 15,000 and above, prominently on the NGO's Web site and in its publications, including full donor identity details and any tax exemptions that were applied. Israeli government funding would, of course, be listed as well.

Most of NGO Monitor's Israeli targets already meet these standards. For the few that do not, compliance would be an easy task.

This is certainly not the case for the organizations fueling the settlement enterprise that is destroying our country. They depend on financial opacity for continued operations. Elad, for example, a prime mover of many controversial and provocative settlement adventures in East Jerusalem, has been cited by the Registrar of Associations for refusing to disclose its donor identities.

One can understand their reticence. What would the Israeli public say if the fact that Od Yosef Hai yeshiva, in Yitzhar, is the recipient of generous funding from the Israeli government had to be prominently displayed on the cover of its publications - which include "Baruch Hagever," an ode to Tomb of the Patriarchs killer Baruch Goldstein, and the "Handbook for the Killing of Gentiles"? How long would the U.S. taxpayer put up with the tax-exempt status of Shuva Israel, a Christian Zionist fund, if they knew that it supports the expansion of settlement outposts, illegal even under Israeli law?

These examples are just the tip of an iceberg. Hundreds of millions of dollars in Israeli taxpayer money and exemptions, mostly hidden from public view, are the driving force of the settlement enterprise. The Steinberg Act would be applauded by progressive Israel and genuine "pro-Israelis" abroad. Transparency is the lifeblood of democracy and our society could use a lot more of it.

Didi Remez, a communications consultant and human rights activist, was proud recently to discover that he has been targeted by NGO Monitor. Remez blogs at