This post was originally published in January 2016. Israel’s Knesset has since passed the NGO bill referenced in the piece.
Much ado has been made lately over Israel’s now infamous bill regulating non-governmental organizations. This is the proposed legislation requiring Israeli NGOs receiving a majority of their funding from foreign governments to report their funding sources and their representatives to wear identifying badges while in the Knesset. The bill has drawn the ire of many, who note that it applies disproportionately to NGOs on the left rather than the right, the former receiving funding primarily from European governments and the latter receiving funding primarily from individuals, most of them Americans. It has drawn condemnation from a wide range of groups and people on both sides of the ocean, including MKs in the coalition, such as former U.S. ambassador and current Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who said that he will not vote for it. Despite all of the concern, I’m a lot less worried than most. I actually don’t see the bill itself as that big of a deal.
There’s no question that the bill is problematic. The bill is redundant, as the reporting requirements that it mandates already exist under Israeli law. I am uncomfortable with any measure targeting NGOs, let alone one with such nativist tones. The comparisons that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has made to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act are facile, as Lara Friedman has pointed out. Only someone with partisan blinders on genuinely believes that this bill is about transparency rather than a naked attempt to hamper leftwing organizations while leaving rightwing organizations untouched.
Ultimately though, the effect of the NGO bill if passed will be to subject representatives of some NGOs to unwarranted humiliation while they are visiting the Knesset building. Is that something to ideally be avoided? Of course. Is it a “danger to Israeli democracy” or “the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent,” as the Washington Post editorial board has written? I think that is overstating the case in a significant way. China’s NGO law forbids any funding from abroad, full stop. Russia’s NGO law allows the government at its discretion to shut down foreign-funded organizations and fine and imprison those organizations’ employees. Egypt’s NGO law requires government approval before an NGO can accept overseas funding, and the penalty for noncompliance is seizure of assets and shuttering the organization. The Israeli NGO bill is ugly and unpleasant, but it occupies a different universe than NGO laws around the globe that are genuine threats to a country’s democratic viability.
So now that I have established myself as the least popular guy in the liberal Zionist room, why should you still be worried about this bill? The reason is that the bill itself is not authoritarianism come to life, but it is part of a larger trend of things that are far worse. The NGO bill is a misdirection play that has lots of people and organizations mobilizing against it, when the graver danger is taking place elsewhere.
The strongest objection to the NGO bill is that it subsumes democracy to nationalist politics. Too often, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the current government have caused Israeli democracy to suffer for the sake of scoring political points. It has been obvious for years now – as the most radical elements of the settler movement went from establishing illegal outposts to inciting against the IDF to “price tag” attacks to firebombing houses with their occupants in them – that the decision to enforce a law depends on the identity of the perpetrators. There is the constant threat of a nation-state bill that explicitly prioritizes Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic character. There is the ongoing absurdity of arresting rabbis for performing unsanctioned wedding ceremonies, which is extremism personified and is largely still maintained so that Netanyahu can mollify his preferred coalition partners, who give him a blank check when it comes to nationalist policies.
Israel’s standing in the world is also allowed to erode for the sake of placating political allies. One of Netanyahu’s own cabinet ministers, Uri Ariel, violates Israeli law with repeated attempts to pray on the Temple Mount and nearly ignited a full blown crisis with the United States when his secret building plans for E-1 came to light, but he remains in his post untouched. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, the effective acting Foreign Minister, infuriated the Jordanians and other Arab counties by calling for the Israeli flag to fly over the Dome of the Rock, yet she remains Israel’s de facto top diplomat. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations has disavowed the two-state solution, and Brazil is refusing to accept the credentials of Netanyahu’s ambassador-designate since he was formerly head of the settlers’ umbrella Yesha Council, but Netanyahu has not treated these glaring problems with the gravity that they deserve.
Is it any surprise then that actual extremists believe they can act with impunity in ways that genuinely challenge Israeli democracy? Ali Dawabshe’s murderer Amiram Ben Uliel and the members of HaMered that stabbed the toddler’s pictures at a wedding reception are not representative of Israeli society writ large, but neither should they be viewed as isolated random noise. When a Jewish group that perpetrated a string of murders of Palestinians, firebombings of churches, and price tag attacks was finally broken up, the government described them as unconnected to any larger political program or viewpoint. In contrast, when a sole Arab gunman with a history of mental problems went on a terrifying shooting rampage in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spoke stridently about the unacceptable lawlessness of the entire Israeli Arab sector. There is a consistent message emanating from the top of the Israeli government down through Israeli society, and it is an ugly one.
The NGO bill is to my mind the least worrisome element in this catalog of concerns. But it is the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave, reflecting a deeper truth that is taking place. By all means get worked up about the NGO bill, but keep it in perspective. Should it pass, Israeli democracy will not die. That doesn’t mean that Israeli democracy deserves a clean bill of health.