Letter to the Knesset: New Approaches to Israel's NGO Debate
As you well know, the issue of foreign government funding for Israeli NGOs was on the Knesset agenda in the previous session, culminating in the passage of the “funding transparency law”. It appears that this session will also feature debates and proposals regarding NGO activity and funding.
In this context, it is important to note that the intense political reactions to provocative NGO behavior have proven ineffective. Calls to strip B’Tselem’s CEO, Hagai El-Ad, of his Israeli citizenship, withdraw National Service slots from the organization and other punishments are counterproductive and have diverted attention away from substantive concerns regarding the group’s activities while giving it martyr status.
Most of the proposed NGO bills were not adopted by the Knesset, and with the exception of the 2011 Foreign Funding Transparency Law, the ones that passed did not change the dynamics of foreign funding for local political NGOs. The new legislation, adopted in 2016, added little substance and has not advanced the stated goal of reining in inappropriate processes. Instead, like the responses to El-Ad, the proposed laws are exploited to paint Israel as anti-democratic, anti-free speech, “McCarthyite”, and fascist, inviting comparisons to Russia and Egypt. Again, instead of hearing substantive, methodical critiques of government funding practices or of NGO actions, foreign governments and parliaments get the impression that these NGOs must be supported and reinforced to withstand against an “Israeli government crackdown on civil society.”
Instead, a broader strategy is required to effectively deal with NGO political warfare, including BDS, and its government-based funder-enablers. After the discredited UN Goldstone report on the 2008-2009 Gaza war, which quoted poorly sourced, methodologically flawed and politicized publications from B’tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, and others, MKs from both the Left and the Right recognized the dangers stemming from the massive influx of foreign governmental funding, mainly from Europe, to a very small group of Israeli political NGOs. This eventually resulted in the adoption of the 2011 Funding Transparency Law. Today, there is still a broad recognition of these concerns from leaders across the political spectrum.
An effective response to the NGO issue requires genuine cooperation between Coalition and Opposition parties and must eschew ineffective, damaging rhetoric and action. Since the root of the problem lies in the funding provided by foreign institutions, primarily from European governments, the solutions must address this dynamic, and the assault on Israeli sovereignty that it entails.
On this basis, I suggest taking a number of alternatives. First, the Knesset should create a broad dialogue with members of European parliaments, discussing the breadth and scope of Israeli civil society in the democratic framework. This exchange should move past the well-known differences on the conflict, and into other areas where European funding can make a positive contribution to understanding and dialogue, cooperation such as joint Israeli-Palestinian cultural and interreligious projects. MKs should use the Knesset itself as a forum in which to introduce civil society groups to foreign officials and should launch and support programs aimed at increasing the visibility and awareness at home and abroad of organizations which do important and positive work on a broad range of subjects. In this past, these important sectors of Israeli civil society have not received much attention from foreign governments focused narrowly only on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the NGOs operating in that context.
Second, I propose that the Knesset establish a permanent human rights committee that will serve as a forum for MKs to examine new developments and identify measures that can be taken to ensure that Israel maintains high standards of respect for human rights. Similarly, the committee will engender a robust discussion on a broad spectrum of human rights concerns, including rights of handicapped individuals, children, and other dimensions.
Third, a number of European MPs and MEPs have expressed interest in forming peer to peer forums with MKs to examine the challenges presented by government funding for political NGOs and to explore solutions, such as funding guidelines. These talks should also include the issues of funding transparency, which if implemented properly by European governments, would serve to allay some of the concerns expressed by Israelis.
Finally, MKs should reach out to Jewish and non-Jewish allies and groups in Israel and abroad which share the objective of opposing NGO delegitimization activities. Cooperating with and learning from these groups will inform debate in Israel and provide MKs with effective alternatives to legislation.
If implemented, these mechanisms have the potential to mitigate Israel’s conflictual relations with European governments and the EU, raise awareness of the dangers of misusing European taxpayer money to fund counterproductive NGOs, and solidify the Knesset’s place in Israel’s human rights discourse.
Professor Gerald Steinberg
President, NGO Monitor