Since the notorious NGO Forum of the 2001 Durban Conference on racism, a wide spectrum of nongovernmental organizations have implemented a coordinated isolation and demonization strategy against Israel, of which the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a key component. Influential and well-financed Israeli and Palestinian NGOs are very active in their use of this strategy, and in a democratic society such as ours, their claims and agendas should not be immune from criticism and debate.
However, two pieces of legislation – the newly passed "anti-boycott law" and a proposal, sponsored by MK Fania Kirshenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu, that aimed to open an official inquiry into the funding of NGOs accused of being involved in delegitimization – are more likely to polarize Israelis, as well as Diaspora Jews, than to shed light or encourage informed criticism. The parliamentary and public debates surrounding these initiatives demonstrate their intense political nature, as both ends of the ideological spectrum ignore the complex and substantive issues that are involved.
Many on the right tend to portray NGOs that use the language of human rights as enemies of Israel, without distinction, while on the left, the tendency is to paint criticism of their actions as "McCarthyist" and as heralding the "death of Israeli democracy."
Neither of these ideological responses helps Israel combat the real threat from delegitimization – in the form of lawfare, BDS, Durban III and various other "mini-Durban" conferences held by the UN – nor do they address the root problem of foreign government funding to political advocacy NGOs. Instead, these partisan activities, which ignore broad and legitimate concerns, feed the demonization, and increase the divisions within Israeli society.
The right’s tactics provide more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to assert that Israeli democracy is under siege, further contributing to the country’s isolation. Attacking the legitimacy of Israel’s parliament and judicial system are common tactics in the Durban strategy, and both new pieces of legislation provide more examples for critics to reference.
On the left of Israeli politics, the intense condemnation of the new BDS law, and the plan to challenge it in the High Court, are indicative of a strong democracy, not of its decline. Many NGOs on the left also misrepresent the new law and the BDS movement by saying that the boycotts’ targets are limited to "settlements" and occupation. But, instead of engaging in substantive public debate on how foreign government funding to NGOs sustains the BDS movement, manipulates Israeli politics, supports lawfare campaigns, and amplifies rhetoric of "apartheid" and "war crimes," these NGOs divert attention through false claims.
The problematic, nontransparent nature of massive foreign government funding to political NGOs continues. It is too soon to know whether earlier legislation, based on the public’s right to know, and adopted February 21, 2011, will bring an end to this secrecy. However, the litany of new Knesset legislation on NGOs and boycotts is likely to divert attention from the funding transparency issue.
While preaching democracy and good government to others, European officials blatantly violate the basic principles of funding transparency and open debate. Great secrecy hides all aspects of the processes through which the EU funds groups such as Yesh Din, Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, as well as many Palestinian groups.
Swiss parliament members, for example, recently held an unprecedented debate on their government’s funding of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities of the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. BADIL promotes BDS, rejects the U.S. roadmap for peace and the Arab Peace Initiative, and also employs demonizing language such as "Israel’s colonial apartheid regime" and "systematic ethnic cleansing." BADIL awarded a prize to a crude anti-Semitic cartoon in its 2010 Al-Awda Nakba competition, and published it on its website.
In May 2011, the Swiss government reportedly froze funding for BADIL. The British government has also ended funding for some political advocacy NGOs. There are many other examples of NGO funding throughout Europe, however, that have not been addressed. Instead of initiating a flood of problematic legislation, Knesset members should raise this with their European counterparts.
Neither the anti-boycott law nor the proposed inquiry committee will change funding practices of European governments for political advocacy NGOs. Rather, a parliamentary inquiry into abuses of NGO funding would be most useful in the European context, since this is the main source of money for the BDS campaigns and other forms of demonization. But until that occurs, Israeli politicians should refrain from counterproductive legislation that encourages the delegitimization movement, instead of providing effective mechanisms to combat it.
Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and to encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East. Jason Edelstein is communications director of NGO Monitor.