January 12, 2012
THE NGO CAMPAIGN AGAINST ISRAEL DEMOCRACY
Gerald M. Steinberg
By any objective standard, Israeli democracy is as robust and pluralistic as any in the world. There are no restrictions on any form of protest or advocacy, including very fierce and unpopular criticism of the government and military. No other democracy can claim to have greater freedom of expression, despite more than six decades of war and terrorism; threats of annihilation; and in parallel, the challenges of developing a cohesive society based on numerous divergent communities scattered for generations as Diasporas, many of which do not have traditions of pluralism and democracy.
Of course, our society is not perfect — like other nations, we have flaws, and it is our responsibility to correct them. But aggressive campaigns greatly exaggerate these imperfections, as part of the ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel, led by the soft-power of and well-financed “civil society” groups, which themselves are not subject to any democratic accountability. These accusations should not be accepted at face value, and must be tested against credible evidence that is independently verifiable.
Israel’s democratic credentials include a wide-open electoral process: a free and highly critical press; a vibrant NGO sector with tens of thousands of political and social groups across the political spectrum, engaging in intense debate; as well as the systematic protection of the rights of minorities to freedom of expression and protest.
For example, each year, Israeli police forces and government institutions facilitate Gay Pride parades in Jerusalem Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat; marches on Human Rights Day; protests by the Islamic movement; and to observances of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. In the summer of 2011, mass demonstrations on socio-economic issues were a testament to Israel’s dynamic civil society and a culture of advocacy and peaceable protest. Israeli police facilitated these activities, blocking off roads and granting permits. The government responded to protestors’ demands positively, in the form of a task force to address their claims.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere, where thousands were murdered at the hands of their own governments, pro-democracy activists were quoted as taking inspiration from the democratic nature of Israel and its commitment to freedom of expression.
Similarly, while Arab representatives in the Knesset frequently deny the legitimacy and advocate the destruction of Israel, for which they are strongly criticized in democratic political debate, their right to express these views has not been infringed. MK Haneen Zoabi was aboard the Mavi Marmara, a boat operated by the Turkish group IHH (a member of the Union of Good, a U.S.-banned terror organization), from which Israeli soldiers were brutally attacked. In some other democracies, participation in an armed attack against one’s own military forces would be considered treason, but no criminal charges were made against Zoabi. Instead, she received a minor rebuke, and continues to freely travel around the world denouncing the State of Israel, ironically in whose parliament she sits.
However, all of this has been erased by the promoters of an intense and well-financed campaign falsely accusing Israel of “anti-democratic behavior,” arising from growing criticism and debate over the massive and unprecedented level of non-transparent European government funding for highly political non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The powerful NGOs that receive this illicit largesse, removed from any democratic checks and balances, have launched a concerted effort to silence this debate. But partisan allegations from NGOs should not be taken at face value; in a democracy, groups claiming to speak in the name of human rights have no immunity from criticism and public debate.
Leaders of powerful NGOs should face the same type of scrutiny as other political actors, including elected officials. The importance of this process was illustrated in a “wikileaks” cable in which a New Israel Fund (NIF) official, Hedna Radanovitz, told a U.S. diplomat that “the disappearance of a Jewish state would not be [a] tragedy,” revealing a contrast between NIF’s public statements in support of Zionism.
Thus, criticism and analysis of NGOs is not anti-democratic – indeed, it is the essence of the democratic process. And the debate over the secret NGO funding processes, and of their false claims of “war crimes”, as repeated in the discredited Goldstone report, does not prevent Israeli NGOs such as Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), and many others from publicizing their allegations.
Statements by foreign leaders, such as Hillary Clinton, and media reports on these issues, both in Israel and outside, have repeated the NGO slogans and distortions. Allegations in the editorial pages of the New York Times also fail to address basic issues related to the unique context of NGO political power in Israel, the secret foreign government funding processes, and the fact that the proposed Knesset legislation has been rejected by the robust Israeli democratic process.
More broadly, those who blindly repeat and echo false claims of an “anti-democratic” wave in Israel are again applying double standards and using false claims in order to isolate and condemn the Jewish nation state, as part of the ongoing ideological and cynical campaign of delegitimization. The exploitation of the language of democracy as a weapon to promote campaigns by narrow opposition groups empowered through secret funding processes, and not subject to any checks and balances, is the real threat to Israeli democracy.
Gerald Steinberg is professor of political science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. This column is a summary of NGO Monitor’s presentation to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
30.12.11 @ 13:53
BRUSSELS – When I took up the Israeli ambassadorship in South Africa in 1992 the tide of history was already turning towards democracy. But numerous Apartheid laws were still in force, albeit no longer strictly applied. I particularly remember those designed to disable civil society, destroy community organizations and stamp out human rights. These include laws to stifle funding to human rights organizations. I recall how alien this seemed to me at the time.
Today those memories come rushing back. Legislation about to be voted on in the Knesset is strikingly similar to that from Apartheid South Africa. The Ministerial Committee on legislation has approved amendments proposed by MKs Kirshenbaum and Akunis which would restrict funding from foreign states to local human rights groups. The enforcement of this law would chill Israeli democracy and what remains of our once-vibrant society.
In South Africa, the process began with the Schlebusch Commission of Inquiry into Certain Organisations. Israeli MK Kirshenbaum recently proposed a similar committee intended to “probe the finances and legitimacy of Israeli human rights organizations.” This is how it usually starts.
Immediately thereafter the South African parliament passed the Affected Organisations Act which aimed to “curb interference by foreign countries on the internal political scene” and to prevent “foreign financial assistance for the furtherance of any particular view.” This applied to any group deemed to be an “Affected Organisation.” The Israeli amendments speak in almost identical language of “Restricted Association.”
The South African law at least guaranteed some form of due process in that a group could not be deemed an “Affected Organisation” unless declared so by the State President following a factual investigation and recommendation by a panel of three magistrates.
The proposed Israeli legislation provides for no equivalent due process. It states simply that “a Restricted Association shall not receive donations from a foreign state entity.” This will include any group advocating refusal to do any part of military service or that promotes any form of boycott.
In 1973 the South African deputy minister of justice stated: “The republic defends its borders against political aggression. It must also prevent foreign financial interference in domestic political affairs.” Those words would not sound strange if uttered by a present Israeli cabinet minister.
The danger of trying to seal a country off from the world was keenly appreciated by the lone voice of conscience in the South African parliament, a Jewish woman and a personal friend of mine, Helen Suzman. She said: “South Africa is slipping more and more into the control of a growing body of secret men, making secret investigations and reports.” But a nationalist parliamentarian argued that the law was necessary to block funds to students who “aligned themselves with the blacks.” This scare tactic worked and the South African bill was carried into law.
Like in Israel, the South African law was not targeted at groups involved in violent or illegal activity. Its targets were those consistent voices of conscience which had become a problem for the regime. The National Union of South African Students, the official representatives of all university students, was declared an Affected Organisation by the minister of justice. “What is being attacked” – said the students – “is the right of young people, to determine what is wrong with their society and to embark on creative programmes to counter its ills and to open the possibility for a positive future.”
In defending the Fundraising Act of 1978, minister of justice Jimmy Kruger said “the act would be used to take action against fundraising activities aimed at undermining authority or threatening state security,” saying that his government knew that large amount of money came to South Africa from abroad “actually intended to ensure our destruction.”
Our Israeli politicians justify their actions with identical fears. The basis for the Kirshenbaum-Akunis law is that “organizations, which often refer to themselves as ‘human rights organizations’,” actually have the “sole purpose to cause harm and to alter Israel’s political discourse from within.”
The truth, however, is that the organizations likely to be affected are those fighting to preserve what remains of Israeli democracy and the progressive vision of the declaration of independence.
My experience in South Africa told me that such laws end up failing. They fail because a democratic country cannot close itself off from the world without destroying itself. The law intends to protect Israel’s public image but in the process Israel’s public image is damaged. The enactment of such a law delegitimizes Israel, whilst the importance of such organizations is only made more apparent.
When the Kirshenbaum Committee was suggested the co-director of Breaking the Silence, Mikhael Manekin, explained this dynamic: “They don’t need to love us or tell us that we are patriots. They are doing far more damage to this place than we are. Because of them millions of Palestinians live under military occupation. Because of them Palestinian-Israelis do not live in full equality in their own country. And because of them our position in the world is deteriorating day by day.”
This law will fail because shooting the messenger does not help. The world knows about the occupation. The waves of disapproval and outrage at this wrongdoing will wash over whatever barriers we erect.
It is imperative that Europe and the rest of the international community make it clear to Israel that the world will not be deterred from helping those Israelis who struggle for a solution based on human rights and justice.
The writer was the Israeli ambassador to South Africa between 1992 and 1994 and the director general of the ministry of foreign affairs of Israel