That seems to be the thinking behind the Israeli government’s endorsement of legislation that will require human rights NGOs in Israel (e.g., B’Tselem, Machsomwatch, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, etc.) to publicize contributions from foreign governments, not only in an annual report (they all do that anyway), but every single time they host an event, have a meeting, publish a report, issue a news release, whether they have received outside funding for that particular occasion or not.
And what’s particularly odious about the proposed legislation is that if these groups receive such funding, the groups will lose their tax status as public institutions, but will be defined as “political entities” that have to register and report to the Registrar of Political Parties.
Lest you think that I am exaggerating, I publish sections of the government-approved legislation below. And the Iran analogy is apt: the Iran regime requires all NGOs, including the civil society ones that Americans of all stripe support, to inform a government agency of every contribution they receive from foreign sources, except the United Nations. Read about it here Or read about how Egypt controls and harassess its civil society NGOs here (h/t to Dr. Marsha Cohen and Dan Sisken for these links, respectively.)
Of course, in Iran, the groups also have to ask the agency’s permission to receive those grants; I expect that this will be the next step in the Israeli’s governmental campaign against the human rights NGOs.
But hang on a second: What’s wrong with requiring Israeli human rights organizations to report receiving money from foreign governments? In fact, why should they be allowed to receive such money at all? Isn’t that gross interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state? And what’s the big deal of simply announcing the truth. Transparency and full disclosure should accompany such organizations, no?
OK, so here are three answers to the stated purpose of the law, which is to balance freedom of speech with the right of the public to know who is behind these organizations.
1. The proposed law is unnecessary.
As I said above, all the voluntary organizations in Israel (amutot) are required by law to report regularly to the government. It so happens that the human rights NGOs often go beyond the requirement and publicize the sources of their funding. This is expected; you don’t get money without thanking the organization or individual or government that gave you the money. The human rights organizations are, not surprisingly, proud of their work and grateful for support. Some of them are required by the donors to publicize the funding. When NGO Monitor “broke” the story this summer that the Breaking the Silence booklet of soldiers’ testimonies was paid for, in part, by grants from foreign governments, they found that information printed on the first few pages of the booklet! And unlike NGO Monitor, Breaking the Silence publishes its annual financial reports on its website.
2. The proposed law is discriminatory.
The law has been crafted by right-wingers to target the human rights organizations. If your organization receives money from a Jewish gambling mogul, or from an evangelical Christian organization that looks forward to the destruction of the State of Israel when Jesus returns, you are exempt. Governments like Spain, Holland, and Great Britain, don’t fund illegal settlements; they fund peace initiatives civil society initiatives, in Israel as in Iran.
3. The proposed law’s real purpose is to harass, delegitimize, and dry up funding for progressive NGOs.
If the law only required disclosure on a website, that would be bad enough. But the law requires each organization to go through bureaucratic hoops repeatedly, and to proclaim something like the Surgeon General’s warning every time it does anything publicly. Thus, if B’Tselem rolls out a report on settler violence, and hosts a public event to publicize the report – remember, this is the organization that works together with the Israel Defense Forces to locate Palestinian witnesses in IDF investigations — it must begin the event by announcing that it has sometime, somewhere received money from Holland, say. And if it does not do so? According to the proposed legislation, all members of B’Tselem who were in a position to know where the money came from, and who did not do anything about it are liable to fines and up to a year in prison, “or four times the value of the consideration that was received, whichever is higher.”
The analogy with the Surgeon General’s warning is significant. The purpose of requiring such disclosure is not merely to satisfy the public’s right to know (Who doesn’t know by now that cigarette smoking causes cancer?) but to stigmatize and delegitimize cigarette smoking.
Not every government will be willing to have this publicity. Already the foreign ministry and the prime minister have tried to dissuade foreign governments from donating to such groups. And, from the government’s perspective, it is understandable why. They are an embarrassment to Israel’s image, and they publicize the crimes of the Occupation. These are things that the current rightwing government in Israel doesn’t like. Nor does the current rightwing government in Iran.
If there is a need to inform the Israeli public about foreign funding of NGOs, or of transparency in their operations, then have a law that requires transparency of all such organizations, left, right or none of the above. As I said earlier, the human rights NGOs are among the most transparent in the country. Try tracing the funding for some of the settlers’ organizations; it isn’t easy.
If such a law passes, it will be not only be a black day for what is left of Israeli democracy but there will be other consequences as well. First, foreign governments that sponsor human rights and peace projects will figure out a way how to get the money to the organizations, bypassing the law. So that could make things worse for transparency. Second, I would advise the NGOs to discuss with their legal advisor whether the bill applies to them. After all, they do not view themselves as political entities, and at least some of the NGOs are not there primarily to influence domestic or foreign policy. Breaking the Silence sees its task as informational – letting the Israeli public know what happens to IDF soldiers when they are placed in Occupation situations. The group does not call to end the Occupation or to annex the West Bank and Gaza – it simply wants the Israeli public to know what price Israel is paying for the Occupation. The rightwing considers that political, fine. But will the law and the courts? Third, Israel will be placed by the EU on a list of countries that are unfriendly to human rights organizations. This, too, will have consequences
Here are some passages from the proposed legislation, with my “Perush Rashi” (commentary; my thanks to Didi Remez for providing me with a translation of the bill.) Let’s start with the wide expansion of the phrase “political activity”
“political activity” – an activity intended to influence public opinion in Israel or in whatsoever entity in one of the government authorities in Israel concerning any component of internal or external policy of the State of Israel.
Perush Rashi: The expansion is deliberate in order to counter the argument that these groups are not political organization, or lobbying groups. In fact, they are not, and I think that even with the expansion, at least some of the groups could claim that they are not covered by the law.
A person or body shall not receive the financial support of a Foreign Political Entity for the purpose of financing political activity in Israel until after it has registered with the Registrar of Political Parties; for this purpose, any support that is received by anyone who finances or engages in political activity is presumed support for the purpose of financing political activity.
Perush Rashi: Now that we have expanded the meaning of political activity, we expand the meaning of what support for political activity means. So any Euro received by an group will automatically be considered political in purpose.
The Registrar of Political Parties shall also serve as Registrar of Foreign Political Entity Support (hereinafter – the Registrar).
Perush Rashi: This is my favorite line in the bill. Since there is no government agency that supervises such bodies, the authors decided to “create” one by interpreting the Registrar of Political Parties to include the human rights NGOS. It reminds me of Firesign Theater’s famous, “Department of Redundancy Department.” Except that here there is no redundancy – there is an expansion to brand the human rights NGOS as political parties.
The supported entity shall file an annual balance sheet and financial statement of its income and expenditures as a supported entity in each fiscal year. The statement shall include full particulars according to the list appearing in Section 36 of the Amutot Law, and in the Second Addendum thereto. The supported entity shall file an annual verbatim report which will include details of the matters enumerated in the Third Addendum to the Amutot Law.
Perush Rashi: Here is where we really get to the Department of Redundancy Department. The NGOS already file an annual balance sheet, etc. with the agency governing Amutot. So what is the purpose of this filing? Harassment.
The supported entity or one acting on its behalf will clearly note this status in every document, including electronic one, which relates to political activity. The supported entity or one acting on its behalf, when presenting orally in the framework of a discussion or meeting in which there is political activity, shall note its status at the outset if the subject of the discussion or meeting has an affinity to the aims for which the support was received.
Perush Rashi: Maybe next year the government will require all members of human rights NGOs to walk around with scarlet letters or yellow stars on their t-shirts.
A supported corporation shall not be considered a Public Institution as defined in Section 9(2) of the Income Tax Ordinance.
Perush Rashi: I.e., it will lose its former tax status, another form of harassment.
The recipient of financial support of a Foreign Political Entity in contravention of the provisions of Section 3, shall be sentenced to one year imprisonment or a fine, as stated in Section 61(a)(3) of the Penal Law, 5737-1977 or four times the value of the consideration that was received, whichever is higher. Delivery of an essentially false detail in a declaration according to Section 6 shall be punishable by three years imprisonment.
Perush Rashi: And while you’re out, don’t forget the pound of flesh.
Who says that Israel’s government doesn’t try to fit in with the other Middle East governments?