Justice Minister Calls for Bill to Nix Tax Breaks for NGOs 'Working Against Israel Abroad'

Announcement comes after Knesset committee blocks bid to deprive Amnesty International Israel of its tax-deductible donation status.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Olivier Fitoussi

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced Thursday that she would promote expedited legislation under which only charitable organizations that work to promote the welfare of Israelis and that "do not act against Israel" internationally would be eligible to receive tax-deductible donations.  

Shaked announced her plan together with her fellow Habayit Hayehudi party member MK Bezalel Smotrich, after his bid to deprive Amnesty International Israel of its tax-deductible donation status failed earlier in the day in the Knesset Finance Committee.

The Knesset Finance Committee approved the tax-deductibility of contributions to Amnesty International Israel for three years, but in an unusual step, it stipulated that it could reconsider its decision in a year, subject to the submission of a professional opinion by the Israel Tax Authority on the organization’s conduct.

Individual donors to qualifying organizations can receive a tax credit for up to 35 percent of the amount of their contribution.

Smotrich said that he had obtained the agreement of his party colleague from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, to push for the expedited passage of legislation that would deprive Amnesty International Israel of tax-exempt status in any event.

MK Bezalel Smotrich.
Olivieh Fitoussi

In opposing the status for Amnesty International Israel, Smotrich told the Finance Committee that it is inappropriate for the government to encourage donations to an organization that “in a false and one-sided manner,” criticizes Israel, in his words.

“In a democratic country, the bounds of freedom of expression have to be very broad, but in providing a tax exemption, the state is forcing every citizen to participate in funding this organization, which is acting against Israel Defense Force soldiers, which calls for the filing of complaints with the international court in The Hague against IDF officers. I am not asking to silence [Amnesty], but I am not prepared to have the state finance them.”

Smotrich added: “There’s a limit. This is an organization that systematically publishes false reports, maintains material on its website and calls for people around the world to take the material and file complaints with the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The term human rights cannot be turned into a magic phrase. It’s good to have government criticized, [but] one must not go to the world and spread lies and fabrications. The IDF is the most moral army in the world.”

The Finance Committee session on the issue was a stormy one. The chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Galon, who enlisted support on the committee against Smotrich’s stance, called on committee chairman Moshe Gafni not to deprive Amnesty International of tax-exempt status, and dubbed Smotrich a “chatterbox.” A group of Knesset members, she said, have launched a witch hunt against human rights organizations that criticize government policy.

Galon said she too was critical of the government during the 2014 war with Hamas and its allies in the Gaza Strip, but added, that (from a different political perspective) the head of Smotich’s own party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, was a leading critic of how the war was handled.

“It’s not by chance,” she added, that a professional panel had found that Amnesty International Israel meets the criteria for a tax exemption. An Israel Tax Authority representative, Erez Orad, told the committee that Amnesty’s operations had been thoroughly examined and no government entity had come out clearly against the organization while there was a letter from the Education Ministry “recognizing its work.”

For his part, however, Likud Knesset member Miki Zohar said Amnesty International is a “radical, left-wing group,” adding that the state should not fund or assist such organizations. Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member Oded Forer said the issue should not be a political one, but asked if such an exemption should permit an organization to do whatever it wants.

“Two years ago, one of the criteria that was examined was whether the organization works for the welfare of Israelis. If they accuse the IDF of war crimes and their material is used to sue Israel in The Hague, it’s clear in what direction it is acting. The same holds true if they are calling publicly for [the [public] to refuse to support the IDF,” Forer said.

But Miki Rosenthal of the opposition Zionist Union said Amnesty is an important organization doing important human rights work. “Yes, Arabs have rights too. We have clear criteria. I ask that we stick to them.”

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List said that Smotrich is a fascist who knew that the committee would not accept his position. Tibi’s party colleague Basel Ghattas said Amnesty does not oppose the Israeli occupation out of political motives but rather exposes human rights violations.