Israel's Government Is Silencing Criticism by Choking Its Wallet

The most effective way to silence voices that the government doesn’t want heard is to strike at the sources of funding.

Carolina Landsmann
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Israel's 34th government, May 19, 2015.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Carolina Landsmann

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) understood immediately how to fight the next United Nations report. He stood on the Knesset dais and declared that “the response to the report must be to promote the draft bill calling for increased supervision of non-government organizations. Anyone who tries to turn our soldiers into war criminals – and with foreign funding yet – has to be stopped immediately.” Bennett’s logic is simple: The most effective way to silence voices that the government doesn’t want heard is to strike at the sources of funding.

The distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of funding, the new golden egg laid by propaganda hen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is nothing more than another conceptual manipulation. Netanyahu, Bennett and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev are well aware that there’s no expression without funding.

Regev perhaps understands that better than anyone. Who knows as well as she the deep connection between funding and expression. Regev is working with all the power granted to her by her political authority in order to repair a historical injustice of cultural exclusion, professional sidetracking and economic diminishment. “The time has come for justice and cultural repair in the peripheral areas,” she said recently. And of course there’s only one way to accomplish that: “There’s no question that the time has come to equalize the distribution of resources, with an emphasis on greater geographical and social fairness.”

The war of the extreme rightwing government is taking place on two fronts: It is trying to stop funding all the ideas that are not to its liking and that governments helped to fund until now, whether directly (for example via the culture basket, foundations to encourage artists, etc.) or indirectly (by funding theaters, festivals etc.) The government is in effect saying that although it is undermining expression, it is not undermining freedom of expression.

How is it possible to undermine expression without undermining freedom of expression? By retaining the hypothetical option of expression. For example, by finding a source of funding that is not the government itself.

Here the “NGO law” comes into the picture. The law targets precisely that same hypothetical option of maintaining freedom of expression with funding that is not dependant on the government. With one hand, the government is closing the public tap that channels money to ideas that are not to its liking, and with the other it is closing the private tap, when ideas that are not to its liking find funding in the free market.

The distinction between Israeli and foreign funding as a criterion for approval is irrelevant. The NGO law is directed against left-wing NGOs – from the motivation for its legislation to the criteria it includes (e.g. by disqualifying an NGO with a board member who has called for sanctions on Israel). The Israeli right, which itself receives large sums of money from abroad, has built a quasi-legal mechanism for the sole purpose of silencing the enemy. Even Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has warned, in a letter to Netanyahu several years ago, that the law “suffers from the flaw of unconstitutionality.”

The extreme right-wing government headed by Netanyahu is at the start of an ideological silencing campaign, which, as befits the era in which we live, is using economic weapons. The NGO Law and the distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of funding are only the beginning. After all, there are still private local sources of funding that will need to be taken care of. We can look forward to a continuation.

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