McCarthyism in the Israeli Tax Authority

By 'scrutinizing' the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, the Tax Authority is misusing its power to persecute opponents of the government.

Physicians for Human Rights volunteers.
Physicians for Human Rights volunteers hoping to examine African asylum seekers near the Egyptian border. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Tax Authority’s organizational vision pledges that it will “act efficiently to enforce the collection of taxes and give quality, efficient and fair service.” But the authority has taken another task upon itself: Persecuting organizations that criticize the policy of the right-wing government by hitting them in their pockets.

As Or Kashti reported in Haaretz on Friday, the Tax Authority has decided to “scrutinize” the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights’ application to extend its tax-exempt status based on a clause in the tax code. In the letter, adorned with the Hebrew acronym meaning “With the help of heaven,” Assaf Lerner, a Tax Authority official, wrote that he was uncomfortable with the positions of Physicians for Human Rights: “It may be understood that one of the organization’s goals is to fight the policy of the government … and ‘to end the occupation.’” According to Lerner, such a goal contradicts the directives of the tax code, “because this is an objective that is a matter of deep public controversy, of a political nature.”

Lerner and his superiors want NGOs that are obedient. According to their view, those who do not salute the government must pay a price. But contrary to the Tax Authority’s vision, its enforcement is not fair. Associations that criticize the government on the right, or promote religious and nationalistic goals, receive a tax exemption with no problem. Here is a partial list: Regavim, Almagor, Honeinu, the Temple Institute and Efrat. They all promote objectives that are a matter of deep public controversy, as is the allocation of state lands, thwarting the release of Palestinian prisoners, the release of Jewish terrorists from prison, the building of the Temple and the prevention of abortions.

Physicians for Human Rights, which promotes the right to health and assists the needy in Israel and the territories while expressing its opposition to the occupation, is required to undergo investigation, detailing to Lerner the “way it fights” and the list of the recipients of its aid, and explaining what it was doing in the Palestinian village of Bil’in and in Gaza.

The exploitation of income tax to persecute political adversaries is not the invention of Lerner and his superiors, but rather McCarthyism, plain and simple: We are in charge, we will strike at the funds of our detractors, presenting them as traitors. This is yet another manifestation of the Netanyahu government’s approach, which seeks to crush human rights groups because of their opposition to the occupation.

Human rights groups are essential to the proper workings of a democracy, safeguarding the spark of humanity in the darkness of the occupation and in the face of persecution of African asylum seekers. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who heads Yesh Atid – a party that is supposed to represent liberal values rather than present a liberal face for the right-wing government – must instruct the Tax Authority to leave Physicians for Human Rights alone.