About the New NGO Bill

Far-right members of the Israeli government are planning to submit a bill that requires any Israeli NGO receiving funds from foreign governments to register as a foreign agent. The bill would require, as Lahav Harkov explains, groups

to report any aid they receive from countries overseas and any commitments they have to them, as well as any “foreign activity” they conduct or plan to conduct, and any communication relating to the activity and commitments, among other details, all of which will be accessible to the public, with exceptions like national security or professional secrets.

In short, organizations will have to spend considerable time wasting engaged in reporting their activities and meeting the government’s approval, and will be unable to keep their discussions and planning out of the public eye. The bill will also limit the ability of Israeli NGOs to raise funds abroad. All this while Israel’s existing Amutot Law (Law of Associations) is already more intrusive than comparable laws in other countries. In Israel, NGOs are subject to the supervision of the state, which sets out rules for things like membership and board requirements. An NGO also cannot be formed or maintained if “any of its objects negates the existence or democratic character of the State of Israel.”

Let’s put aside the point that a mature democracy can handle criticism and even calls for new political arrangements. Some have argued that because the bill is modeled on an American version, it’s really nothing so drastic and is well within Western political norms.

The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores context. It’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t about shutting down criticism from left-wing groups and defining acceptable political discourse. A glance at those sponsoring the bill (and the rhetoric they regularly employ against those they disagree with) should make this obvious enough.

A second argument is that because many leftist NGOs receive funding from European governments and European institutions, and because they often cooperate with outside agencies or organizations to provide information on the Israeli occupation, they are, in effect, foreign agents and undermining the interests of the State of Israel.

But it should also be obvious that it’s acceptable for domestic groups to perform watchdog duties on the government, particularly when government policy has clear moral and physical consequences for Israelis and for others. Indeed, this kind of accountability and citizen participation should be encouraged. There is no indication that Israel is weakened because Israeli organizations want to end the occupation, or even call for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers; indeed, Israel has never been more accepted into world affairs through economic integration and participation in political institutions. Nor has there ever been evidence that European entities control or direct the activities of Israeli NGOs.

An argument might be made that groups focused on the Arab community and Arab political demands undermine the “Jewish and democratic nature of the state.” But a close look at the politics of the Arab minority indicates that the demands most worrisome to rightist politicians (changing the Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens”) occurs primarily at the level of the political and intellectual leadership, not in the community more broadly. These demands are also predicated on the decades of marginalization and discrimination the Arab community has faced. Addressing these underlying conditions would do far more to engender acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state than coercive measures. Finally, since comparisons to the West are common, it should be noted that Canada’s political system has for a long time included a party devoted to breaking up the country–the Bloc Québécois–while other Western democracies have their own legitimate separatist movements. In any event, Arab-oriented NGOs are primarily engaged in protecting and expanding the civil and communal rights of Arab citizens.

Finally, regarding context, comparisons to the U.S. law are misleading. American non-profits and NGOs have a very large source of potential funding to draw on—the American people. The Israeli population is much smaller, and there is no history or norm of widespread giving to support NGOs or other similar institutions. This makes it difficult for any NGO to rely on domestic sources for funding.

This connects back to the first point about the bill serving as a vehicle for shutting down left-wing activity, rather than being applicable to all Israeli groups. In theory, legally, of course, the bill doesn’t distinguish between left and right. But it does in practice: most right-wing NGOs get their funding from private sources abroad, rather than public sources. Leftist groups get much of their support from public rather than private sources. So the bill’s effect is designed to apply primarily to certain organizations only.

It’s hard, then, to avoid the conclusion that this is another effort—in a long line of efforts stretching back to the second Netanyahu government—to define Zionism, patriotism, and loyalty very narrowly.