When the Israeli cabinet’s backing of the controversial “Transparency Bill,” which would force left-wing NGOs that receive substantial foreign funding to wear a tag in the Knesset labeling them as such, I could not help but think of the yellow badge Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.
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Nor am I alone. When Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked introduced the bill on November 1, author Uri Breitman posted an image of a yellow badge with the word “leftists” in Hebrew inscribed on it.
Shaked rebuffed the image by asserting that the left likes transparency when it comes to ministerial votes but not the involvement of foreign interest in Israel’s internal affairs.
Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog protested the cabinet vote in a more subtle way in the Knesset on Monday. Playing on the anti-Gaza disengagement slogan “A Jew doesn’t expel a Jew,” he wore a label that read “A Jew doesn’t label a Jew. A Jew doesn’t label people.”
Make no mistake. Shaked sincerely believes she is protecting Israeli democracy. She does not advocate dismantling Israel’s democratic institutions, but rather combatting anti-Israel interests. However, her and the cabinet’s shortsightedness, limited by their worldview, blinds them from the long-term repercussions of their actions and prevents the left from appealing to reason among most coalition members to drop this bill.
Therefore, the left must resort to more dramatic, symbolic measures, to catch the attention of coalition members who can still be swayed once they consider the full ramifications of passing this dangerous bill. That is where the yellow star comes in.
Should the Knesset pass this week the first reading of the Transparency Bill, any NGO that is affected by the bill’s provisions should immediately wear the label it calls for. That label should be in the shape of a yellow Star of David badge.
They must call attention to the gravity of the issue to Israelis and Diaspora Jewry. They must send a clear message that forcing members of the Jewish community to wear badges, be they for reasons of ideology or ethnicity, is unacceptable.
You want to require all NGOs to wear a label like ingredients on a package of pasta showing all their sources of funding? That’s fine, but passing a law that singles out certain groups engaging in legally sanctioned behavior is fundamentally undemocratic and sets a precedent for outlawing those groups. Historically, human rights groups have turned to foreign funding because their local governments are not particularly fond of them sticking their nose in state business, and healthy democracies do not obstruct in such behavior.
Rather, trying to publicly shame human rights groups is the realm of retreating democracies like Russia, which forced non-profits receiving foreign funding to register as foreign agents according to the 2012 foreign agent law. This year, Russia used that law against the NGOs who have registered as foreign agents as the basis for its undesirable organizations law, which empowers prosecutors to shut down these groups. Once Israeli NGOs become labeled, they face the same danger down the road.
Shaked defends the bill by appealing to what she considers to be Israel’s interests. “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests,” she quoted Henry Kissinger on her Facebook page on Sunday night in defense of the bill. “The Transparency Bill doesn’t label people or organizations,” she explained. “It labels the foreign interest of various countries in the world seeking to operate here NGOs.”
Shaked, who posits a zero-sum game between the pro-Greater Israel forces of good and the anti-occupation forces of evil, cannot conceive that the interests of a democracy lie in protecting an open market of ideas, with equal treatment for all. If a bill is to label foreign interests, it should also label the foreign interests of foreign citizens like Florida resident Irwin Moskowitz or Jay Marcus, whose money arguably does far more damage to Israel’s future prospects for peace and democracy than any human rights NGO. While Moskowitz funds Jewish enclaves in Palestinian neighborhoods in the territories, Marcus funnels money to groups like Honenu, which defend Jewish terrorists and financially supports their families.
Likewise, protecting interests are only legitimate when it comes to supporting Israel’s right-wing agenda, in Shaked’s eyes. If she were consistent, she would have no problem with the labeling of products from Israeli settlements in Europe, which has an interest in discouraging behavior that runs counter to the will of the international community. Instead, she wrote off the EU move as “anti-Israeli” and “anti-Judaism.” Ironic how labeling products that violate EU standards is “anti-Jewish” yet forcing law-abiding people to wear labels is merely “labeling interests.”
Clearly, Shaked and her ilk are so fixed in their worldview that they are unable to see that by singling out left-wing NGOs they are setting a precedent that will marginalize and delegitimize any activity that seeks to combat the evils of the occupation at the expense of Israel’s democratic discourse.
Our last line of defense then must be an act that is shocking enough to mobilize more of us to oppose this degeneration of freedom of expression using the most potent symbol of our collective history.
Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him on Twitter: @stevekhaaretz