Calling Out the Two Liberals Who Can Stop Israel's NGO Bill

MKs Rachel Azaria and Roy Folkman worked at groups funded by the NIF. Have they checked their liberal, progressive values at the door of the Knesset?

Uri Keidar
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MK Rachel Azaria and MK Roy Folkman.
MK Rachel Azaria and MK Roy Folkman.Credit: Emil Salman
Uri Keidar

"The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of great moral crisis preserve their neutrality." J.F. Kennedy (after Dante)

Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked was called out in an editorial last week . WaPo, no left wing outlet by any means, slammed her for the recent ‘Transparency Bill’, or more accurately, the Left-wing-NGO-Labeling Act she initiated and promoted during the past few weeks. In the name of "transparency" Shaked pushes a radical right-wing agenda, which leaves right wing NGOs without any need for disclosure regarding their financial sources and focuses only on liberal and progressive groups.

(Shaked responded in where she compared her bill to the U.S.'s Foreign Agents Registration Act and claimed her critics' claims are "exaggerated," and exist as part of the "same foolish attempt [as BDS] to besmirch Israel’s name.")

Frankly, I think attacking Shaked – a tactic chosen by many progressive organizations - misses the target. Shaked is a radical right-wing politician and her actions are to be expected (and condemned), but she alone cannot pass her bill, or any other bill for that matter. Israel’s current coalition is an extremely narrow one; literally every single one of its members must support each bill in order for it to pass.

In such a political reality, we should focus our attention on those genuine , and not only on the right-wing parties and leaders.

Take , for example. Azaria came to power through hard work among communities and NGOs focused on progressive Jewish pluralism. She led , an organization providing legal and policy support for agunot, women who have been refused divorce by their husbands, (and a grantee of the New Israel Fund). Her entire public career is based on promoting liberal values. A single public statement by Azaria would stop the law from ever getting promoted during the current Knesset.  In a shaky coalition of sixty one, a strong statement by even one Member of Parliament stops any bill.

Another frustrating example is that of Kulanu faction chair, MK Roy Folkman. Folkman was a joint project coordinator in Sikkuy, an NGO that is devoted to promoting civil equality for the Arab-Israeli community (and another New Israel Fund grantee.) As an anecdote, it is noteworthy that Folkman's colleague in that project was , leader of the Joint List today. Folkman is a faction - chairman in today's fragile coalition, who was funded by the New Israel Fund, yet refuses to defend it in public. Shouldn't we be focusing our energy on calling him out?

American Jewish liberals have been, rightfully, attentive to that anti-NGO bill. It is important to talk about the hypocrisy in Minister Shaked's one-sided bill, but the primary focus should be on those “liberal” elements within the coalition, who by their deafening silence, allow the radical right to control the Israeli public narrative.

MK Azaria and MK Folkman both should have raised their voices and put a stop to this bill long ago. To date, they have failed us and it is time for their supporters, friends and colleagues, in Israel and abroad, to hold them accountable. Their neutrality should not be accepted. The Kulanu party chairman Moshe Kahlon has indicated that he "can live" with this NGO law being passed, and it certainly seems that Azaria and Folkman didn't make it hard for him to do so. As both of them have strong progressive roots, it seems that the liberal public must question their current agenda at this point.

The actions should be rather plain and simple. Israelis and liberal American Jews should contact these MKs and demand their voices to be heard. Azaria and Folkman grew in our institutions, and benefitted from our support. They cannot shirk from that responsibility now. Not less important, they must understand the political price they will have to pay for standing with the extreme right on these and other issues.

Our current political reality is a rare one. Usually, no MK has the power to stop a law on her own. It takes a few votes, which are not always obtainable. This is not the case today. As the history of Israeli democracy unfolds before our eyes, Azaria, Folkman and their likes need to choose a side. It takes a lot of courage, taking a brave step and single-handedly going against your coalition partners and party leader, but isn't this what principled politics is all about? Azaria and Folkman are now writing the first chapters of their story in politics. All progressive leaders and supporters must approach them publicly in order to give them the opportunity to make the opposition to the NGO Bill an optimistic story about leadership, and not another sad story that deals with political cowardice.  

Uri Keidar is the Chairman of the Israeli Labor Party Youth Wing and former chairman of Ben Gurion University Student Union.