Book Review: The German Political Foundations’ Work between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv: A Kaleidoscope of Different Perspectives

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German Stiftungen [political foundations] are unique and controversial institutions. Many Western countries maintain cultural centers, usually linked to embassies, to promote their image around the world. However, only Germany does this through taxpayer-funded foundations, which are run independently by each of the political parties represented in the Bundestag. Their sizeable budgets are used for conferences, publications, and support for a select group of local partners, often ideologically aligned with the political party behind the foundation. With these resources, political foundations can become significant shapers of public opinion in the countries in which they operate—an issue that has led to the closure of offices in some countries, and to instances of sharp censure in Germany.

In the context of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians, the activities of the six political foundations, particularly Rosa Luxemburg (Die Linke) and Heinrich Böll (Green Party), are especially controversial. The relationship between post-Holocaust Germany and the Jewish State is inherently entangled in multiple and complex layers. For some Israelis, German attempts to manipulate Israeli society and politics, while ostensibly intended to catalyze democratic debate, are seen as inappropriate and insensitive.

Against this backdrop, the publication under review here and the related conferences held at Haifa University and in Germany in 20161 claim to provide a range of perspectives on the Stiftungen and their respective activities. To their credit, the two editors—themselves affiliated with German political foundations—do not attempt to conceal their motivations and those of their sponsors, which is to counter the Knesset legislative initiatives calling for increased transparency for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are funded by foreign governments.

The campaign against this NGO legislation goes back to the initial draft of the law in 2009, which, with cross-party support, aimed at balancing freedom of expression with the need for greater transparency and accountability.2 Before the final vote in 2011, the Böll Foundation led the other German Stiftungen in sending to Knesset members an unprecedented public letter opposing the legislation.3 The two conferences and this book are continuations of this political campaign.

Many of the twenty short essays in the volume mix personal histories with ideological musings on Israel, the Palestinians, peace, social justice, and democracy. Most sing the praises of the foundations, condescend to Israelis, and criticize the legislation, claiming that it endangers their achievements. The combined result is a sponsored publication rather than an objective analysis.

Footnotes

  1. The book includes the details of these conferences. The first, entitled, “New Gatekeeper in a Globalized World? The Israeli Transparency Bill: Legal and Political Aspects of the Work of Israeli NGOs supported from Abroad,” was held in Haifa in March 2016. The second, “A Player and Not Just a Payer? The Work of German Political Foundations Abroad,” took place in Bochum in July 2016.
  2. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that based on my academic work, several Knesset members from various parties consulted with me in writing this legislation, and I have authored a number of academic publications on these issues, none of which is cited in this book
  3. Heinrich Böll Foundation, “German political foundations write joint letter to Members of Knesset on NGO funding bills—Democracy,” November 20, 2011, https://il.boell.org/ en/2011/11/20/german-political-foundations-write-joint-letter-members-knesset-ngofunding-bills

About the Author

Professor Gerald M. Steinberg

Professor Gerald M. Steinberg

Professor Gerald Steinberg is founder and president of NGO Monitor and professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University. He is the founder of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar Ilan University. His research focuses on the changing nature of power in international relations, as reflected in Middle East Diplomacy and Security, The Politics of Human Rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and Israeli Politics and Arms Control.