Two bills take aim at left-wing NGOs in Israel

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Two bills now making their way through Israel’s parliament have unleashed a firestorm of criticism from opponents who claim the measures tear at Israel’s democratic fabric and are aimed primarily at quashing the work of human rights groups and other progressive nongovernmental organizations.

The bills, which have the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, passed the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation Nov. 13 by an 11-5 vote. After an appeal by opponents, the bills were referred to the full Cabinet for consideration.

One bill would ban political organizations in Israel from receiving donations of more than 20,000 shekels (about $5,000) from foreign governments and international groups. The other, initiated by Fania Kirshenbaum of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, would tax the organizations at a rate of 45 percent on all revenue provided by a foreign government.

Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Fania Kirshenbaum, pictured at a Knesset session, has introduced a bill that opponents call “draconian.” photo/jta/flash90/miriam alster

“This proposed legislation treats Israel’s friends as enemies and those committed to human rights as accomplices in terror,” said Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank. “This has no place in the democratic world.”

Even as the bills were being passed, Netanyahu said he wanted to amend a number of clauses, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. The changes are likely to include raising the proposed cap for financial contributions and distinguishing human rights groups from purely political ones.

Left-leaning Israeli NGOs tend to be more reliant on foreign sources of funding than their more conservative peers. According to a recent report in Ha’aretz, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem receives 53 percent of its funding from abroad. For Yesh Din, another human rights group, the figure is 94 percent. For Peace Now, it’s 34 percent.

“These two bills are a severe affront to Israel’s democratic character and part of a larger effort on the part of specific [Knesset members] to curtail the work of human rights and social change organizations whose agenda and/or activities differ from their political views,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a position paper distributed twice to lawmakers before the vote. ACRI gets 15 percent of its funding from abroad.

The New Israel Fund, an NGO funding civil rights efforts in Israel, said the bills are “specifically designed to destroy Israel’s progressive NGO community.”

Defenders of the bills say they are aimed at curbing the influence of foreign governments — specifically European — on internal Israeli affairs.

“Instead of presenting and defending their disagreements with Israeli policy in public, according to accepted diplomatic procedures, the EU and individual European governments seek to exert pressure via massive funding for highly politicized Israeli NGOs,” Gerald Steinberg, president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, said in a statement.

European governments spend more per year on left-wing Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups than their total contributions to nonprofit human rights groups in other countries in the Middle East, Steinberg told the New York Times.

A broad swath of lawmakers from across the political spectrum has voiced opposition to the bills, with many vowing to fight them. Likud Party ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan voted against the bills, as did Shalom Simhon and Orit Noked of Ehud Barak’s Independence Party.