Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Israel’s New NGO Law: Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant

Noah Pollak
21 February '11


Good news from Israel, where the Knesset has just approved an important transparency measure. It requires NGO—non-governmental organizations like human-rights groups and aid providers—to issue quarterly reports disclosing any foreign funding, and to state on their websites and in advertisements that they are foreign-funded.

It might seem strange to the casual observer that a seemingly obscure issue like foreign funding of NGO’s could be important. But Israel faces challenges different from other democracies. The intense media and political interest in Israel and its geographic isolation (which makes the media one of the only means by which the outside world learns anything about the country) make Israel’s image particularly vulnerable to manipulation.

The NGO’s—such as B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Shatil, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, Peace Now, and so on—promote what is by now a familiar narrative: that Israel is a war criminal, a cruel oppressor of the Palestinians, a human rights violator, and an aggressor uninterested in peace. They invest heavily in media outreach and PR firms, and enjoy credulous treatment in the media. All told, they receive over $100 million a year, mostly from the EU, European embassies, and the U.S.-based New Israel Fund, and operate as the political home for a desperately small fringe of radicals who cannot exercise political power by normal democratic means—say, by raising money for their cause from their fellow citizens, or by persuading voters and winning elections. Shorn of foreign funding, they would fade into obscurity. But with their millions, and their PR savvy, and the media’s infatuation with negative stories about Israel, and the desire of many westerners to be convinced that Israel is an embarrassment and a problem, they have flourished.

Ironically, the issuance of the Goldstone Report regarding Israel’s handling of the war with Hamas in Gaza probably changed their fortunes. It was largely a copy-and-paste job from material produced by the NGO’s, and was heavily supported by them. This profoundly unjust and one-sided document drew unprecedented attention both outside Israel and inside its borders to the poisonous role the groups play in assaulting Israel’s legitimacy. And upon scratching the surface, Israelis discovered something that troubled them even more: these groups aren’t even Israeli, as far as their funding is concerned.

As this debate has played out over the past two years, the NGO’s have protested with predictable hysteria against criticism of them, claiming they are being subjected to a witch-hunt, McCarthyism, or an assault on democracy. They may say the same about the new Knesset bill, but it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, a harsher version was rejected by the Knesset, and the law that did pass is unobtrusive compared to our Foreign Agents Registration Act. Surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know when foreigners are bankrolling an allegedly domestic political movement. Now they will. And that is bad news for the NGO’s, which would much prefer that nobody noticed their paychecks are signed by European governments and American leftists.

UPDATE: Oh so predictable. Haaretz: “[Meretz Party] MK Haim Oron criticized the government for becoming ‘increasingly McCarthyist. Today we have received the weekly lesson in what is not a democracy.’” It’s important to understand that if someone read Pericles’s Funeral Oration, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the complete works of Thomas Jefferson from the floor of the Knesset, the Meretz Party would say that it was a McCarthyist attack on democracy.

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