A new bill that would penalize NGOs at odds with Israeli government policy has cleared the first legislative hurdles in the Knesset. Thankfully, it will probably never become law. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has already announced her decision to appeal it and Attorney General Weinstein has stated that he would be unable to defend it at the High Court. Even NGO Monitor, no friend of NGOs that oppose government policy, has taken a principled stand to note that “legislative proposals that go beyond democratic transparency and accountability for these NGOs are ill advised, not enforceable, and damage Israel’s vital national interests.”
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The attempt to muzzle NGOs that do not parrot the government’s line is not, however, trivial. It is a transparent attempt to limit freedom of speech, a hallmark of liberal democracy, as Livni and Weinstein have observed.
We’re used to it. We at the New Israel Fund, and the human rights organizations we support, have been beating back similar attempts to put us out of business since at least 2010. While this particular bill might spare our own grantees, because we ourselves do not fund organizations that participate in global BDS or universal jurisdiction cases, we still see these repeated attempts as dangerous to Israel, albeit in ways that might not be immediately obvious.
It’s unusual for a progressive American to quote Ayn Rand, but here’s some wisdom that crosses ideological lines. “Don’t bother to examine a folly, just ask yourself what it accomplishes.” In this case, it’s worth looking more closely at the bill and at what might seem to be less insidious but related proposals, to better understand the actual agenda of Israel’s ultra-nationalist right.
First, let’s dispense with the idea now circulated by some right-wing pundits that the bill would only protect Israel from interference from foreign governments, who already protect themselves from similar overseas funding. Here in the U.S., foreign governments fund NGOs working against our comparatively common use of capital punishment, without restriction or comment. In Europe, circumstances differ by country, but the nation that most harshly restricts foreign funding to its human rights community is Russia, hardly a democracy for Israel to emulate. European nations, individually and as the EU, do not prohibit foreign funding for specific kinds of speech or action that is not already forbidden by criminal law. It is illegal, for example, for a foreign government to fund Holocaust denial in Germany, but that speech is already proscribed by the German criminal code.
Second, Israel is almost alone among democracies in permitting private foreign funding of politicians running in their party primaries. I admit, to an American this is bit strange. Why are Sheldon Adelson et al shaping the agenda, through candidate support, for Likud and parties even further to the right? And the support for individual candidates by foreign millionaires is certainly not the only issue. Radical settler organizations and other ultra-nationalist NGOs enjoy millions of dollars of support from both right-wing Jews and evangelicals overseas, but of course that immense transfer of funds and influence is not addressed by this legislation.
But most important is a clause that was just removed from the bill, which was a dead give-away to what its backers really want. The anti-NGO legislation originally penalized organizations that “opposed Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The inclusion of this clause was not a one-off, but central to the intent of those who would remake Israel in a very different image.
Currently, there is another proposal, now under legal analysis in the Justice Ministry, which would actually attempt to concretize the Jewish nature of the state into legislation with the weight of a Basic Law – Israel’s de facto constitution.
Some versions of this Jewish-state legislation have attempted to position Israel’s Jewish identity as more important, in terms of what the state is permitted to do, than its democracy. In other words, an Israeli citizen’s religio-ethnic identity could be treated as a determining factor in deciding whether he or she was entitled to equal protection or recourse under Israeli law or in Israeli courts. Such a formulation, under which Jews have more rights than non-Jews, and under which discrimination against non-Jews is formalized, would indeed permanently resolve the creative tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature, but at the unbearable cost of finally establishing Israel as a racist and discriminatory regime.
Even if the more extreme versions of these proposals never see the light of day, even if moderates in the Knesset continue to oppose Jewish-before-democratic as a legal principle, the ultra-nationalist backing for it tells us all we need to know. A state self-defined as a bastion of ethnic privilege does not have to make peace, give up settlements and territory, or consider the rights of non-Jews within its supposedly divinely-decreed borders. A state with an ethnic definition that overlaps substantially with a particular articulation of a religious creed will never achieve a civil sphere or freedom of conscience and religion even for its own majority citizens. And a state that demands that its adversary – the Palestinians -- recognize it as legally identical to its majority population is asking the impossible.
That, then, is what this folly is about. Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, ultra-nationalist settlers and their supporters have looked for a legal foundation to prevent the state from ever ceding control of an inch of the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Some of them have decided that their best bet to prevent a peace agreement is to transform Israel into an ethnically homogenous state untethered from the requirements of liberal democracy. This Israel of their dreams is unabashedly and permanently militaristic, xenophobic, repressive of dissent and dismissive of universal norms of human and civil rights.
Putting a few radical NGOs out of business isn’t the long-term objective here, although from their standpoint it surely wouldn’t hurt. The real goal is to eventually define Israel’s Jewish-and-democratic formulation in a way that can silence opposition and impose impossible strictures on freedom of speech and minority rights, and it is this objective to which attention must be paid. Only vigilant attention and expanding public understanding and support for Israeli democracy will prevent the loss of the Israel envisioned by its founders, intended to embody the best Jewish and universal values: Democratic, egalitarian, and free.
Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.