The “Transparency Bill,” also known as the “NGO Bill,” received cabinet approval this week and is therefore closer to becoming law in Israel. The bill requires any Israeli NGO receiving more than half its funding from foreign governments to disclose this in all written communications with elected officials; to declare it orally when meeting in places where public officials gather; and, perhaps most chillingly, to require these NGO representatives to wear a badge indicating this funding whenever they visit the Knesset. The government’s coalition members have already agreed to support the bill when it is presented to the Knesset.
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It’s no wonder left-wing NGOs and their supporters are bristling at the bill, seeing it, rightly, as targeting them specifically. Right-wing NGOs tend to get their foreign funding from individuals (who are often more difficult to track) rather than from governments. Given the current composition of the Israeli government, right-wing NGOs also naturally seek to support and intensify existing government policies; whereas left-wing NGOs are more likely to challenge the government’s policies. The bill is also somewhat redundant, since all NGOs are already required to declare their funding sources.
But should the bill pass, NGOs should wear their scarlet letter proudly. Unlike the literary figure Hester Prynne, who flouted her community’s norms by committing adultery, Israeli NGOs are not only upholding the democratic norms of their own country, but are indeed enacting the norms of a much larger world than their own: specifically, global international society.
Consider the foreign government funding sources of ACRI, Israel’s premier civil liberties association. These donor countries are exclusively democracies. Ditto the country donors to B’Tselem, Israel’s premier human rights organization. Adalah, New Israel Fund, Sikkuy: all of these rights groups in Israel receive funding not from authoritarian regimes who trade in tyranny and persecution, but from democracies.
What do democracies have in common? Namely, a mission to uphold the practices that define them: openness, transparency, protection of the individual and of minorities, human rights, civil liberties, and freedom. Expressing these norms is one of the main explanations for one of the most enduring features of the international system: the tendency for democracies to never go to war with one another. In believing that fellow democracies act with similar degrees of openness and debate, democratic governments inherently trust one another to solve disputes peacefully.
Democratic governments also have another unique quality: by design, they speak for their majority. Right now, the donor countries to these NGOs are mostly European. (Some UN bodies are represented, as well as USAID.) But imagine if every democracy in the world chose to funnel some of their foreign aid budget to Israeli NGOs. These Israeli groups would then be acting as an extension of global democratic society writ large: the best slice of human capital the world currently boasts.
On the day of the vote, the Zionist Union wore protest tags declaring “a Jew doesn’t mark another Jew: a Jew doesn’t mark another human being.” Galei Tzahal, Israel’s army radio, has revealed that 98% of Netanyahu’s campaign donations come from donors abroad. An American petition is circulating urging “President Obama and Congress to support U.S. legislation and regulations that would ensure that similar restrictions to whatever is enacted in the Knesset against "foreign funding" of Israeli human rights groups are applied in the U.S. to private U.S. funding of the Israeli Right and the settler movement.” And now, a group of American citizens have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury in a bid to rescind the non-profit status of 150 American NGOs which apparently send billions of dollars to the settlements and to the IDF.
These are understandable rearguard actions. But perhaps supporters of human rights and civil liberties are looking the wrong way.
The Israeli government worries about Israel being “delegitimized” in international circles. The best hope for Israel is for the country’s fellow democracies to believe in Israeli civil society enough to continue to boost it. Until the upholders of democratic values give up on Israel altogether— and I sure hope that does not happen - Israeli NGOs should boast proudly of their foreign democratic government funding.
It follows, too, that the Israeli government should be grateful for it. Amidst all the delegitimization stemming from Israel’s running of a patently undemocratic regime in the West Bank which regularly flouts human rights and civil liberties, the good work of these Israeli NGOs — the cornerstone of Israeli civil society — is the best reminder that there is hope for democratic Israel yet.
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov