Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Logic Behind Israel’s Parliamentary Inquiry on NGO Funding

Evelyn Gordon
26 January '11

Israel’s much-discussed parliamentary inquiry into nongovernmental organizations’ funding seems set to go ahead, after the ruling Likud Party’s Knesset faction voted yesterday to support it. The inquiry carries real risks, as it could easily degenerate into McCarthyism. But if done right, it could serve the same valuable purpose many previous parliamentary inquiries have: providing the Knesset with the information needed to craft sensible legislation.

The inquiry’s opponents charge that since it will focus on leftist NGOs specifically, it can’t be anything but a political witch hunt. Yet there’s a valid reason for this focus that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the reality of NGO funding in Israel.

Almost all Israeli NGOs receive funding from foreign individuals or foundations, and most would likely collapse without it. That widely known fact makes an inquiry into foreign donations in general unnecessary, because no MK would even consider curbing them: it would destroy Israel’s nonprofit sector. At most, the Knesset may (and should) promulgate regulations to increase transparency.

Hence the inquiry is focusing on one specific subset of foreign funding that gained prominence due to the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war: funding by foreign governments.

Set up by the virulently anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council, the Goldstone Committee was never intended to be anything but a tool to bludgeon Israel. Thus the fact that certain Israeli NGOs collaborated with it made many Israelis question their hitherto widely accepted claim to have Israel’s best interests at heart — especially when it later emerged that many of the anti-Israel allegations they supplied were false. Even Hamas, for instance, now admits that Israel’s army was right and Israeli NGOs wrong about the combatant-to-civilian casualty ratio.

When it also emerged that many of these groups receive funding from foreign governments, Israelis concluded that this issue needed to be addressed. But right now, that is impossible, because too much crucial information is unknown.

How many groups are funded by foreign governments? Are foreign governments a major or marginal source of these groups’ funding? Are government donations mainly made directly or channeled through foreign foundations? Without answers to such questions, it’s impossible even to decide whether legislation is really needed, much less craft sensible regulations.

One thing, however, is known: foreign governments fund left-wing NGOs exclusively. They don’t fund groups that, for instance, build Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. Hence, to investigate this issue, the Knesset has to focus on left-wing groups.

Previous parliamentary inquiries have successfully amassed information that led to legislation. A five-year inquiry into Holocaust-era assets in Israel, for instance, recently resulted in the establishment of a government company to restitute such assets. And while NGO funding is clearly a more controversial topic, legislatures elsewhere often hold inquiries on equally controversial subjects — for example, Rep. Peter King’s planned congressional hearings on radical Islam in America — for the same reason: to find out what the scope of a problem really is.

The NGO inquiry could easily go wrong. But in principle, it’s a legitimate use of legislative powers for legislative ends. And it deserves to be treated as such.

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