Squinting at Israeli Democracy, Washington Post Editorial Misses Target

Israeli democracy—self-sabotaging or self-protecting? Those who read The Washington Post’s editorial “A danger to Israeli democracy; Legislation on nongovernmental organizations should be shelved” (Jan. 3, 2016) might have been misled into believing the former.

According to The Post, legislation introduced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked would punish NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that receive more than half their funding from “foreign government entities.” The bill would require them to report the sources of their money, identify themselves publicly as primarily foreign-supported and wear identification as to name and organization when present in the Knesset. Lobbyists already must comply with the latter, the newspaper concedes.

In The Post’s opinion, approval of the legislation would parallel harsh restrictions on NGOs in Russia and China. “There, “dissent is being purposefully silenced….” The editorial writers assert that the Israeli bill “is aimed at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as Peace Now, B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund and others.”

A week and a-half before The Post implicitly equated democratic Israel with dictatorial China and Russia, The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed headlined, “An Irresponsible Civil Society Harms Israel; Foreign influences push the Jewish state further toward pariah status” (Dec. 23, 2015). Written by Gerald M. Steinberg, president of Israel’s NGO-Monitor and professor of international politics at Bar Ilan University, it provided information denied readers of “A danger to Israeli democracy”.

Steinberg argued that Shaked’s bill “highlights some symbolic aspects” of the foreign-funded NGOs that essentially work to thwart policies of Israel’s democratically-elected government. It “targets their legitimacy” since their major foreign support “is seen as an attack on Israel’s national sovereignty….”

Unlike more restrictive proposals that may have prodded The Post, the justice minister’s legislation “doesn’t seek to limit the internal debate,” Steinberg wrote. “It only seeks to address the threat from the outside, via NGO campaigns of demonization and boycotts.”

Promoting democracy or undermining Israeli voters?
In an earlier commentary criticizing a different, more severe anti-NGO proposal, Steinberg wrote, “[L]arge-scale and unprecedented NGO funding from foreign governments to manipulate Israeli politics is a serious issue. When countries like Holland, Denmark or Germany use NGO funding instead of the accepted diplomatic channels for relations between states, they contribute to internal conflict, and undermine Israeli sovereignty.”

Asserting an “absence of transparency and independent evaluation in the transfer of European taxpayer budgets to such organizations,” Steinberg charged that “funds for NGOs operating under the façade of human rights are used to oppose peace efforts through such initiatives as the pro-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns, and in some cases, endorse and promote antisemitic themes” (“The proposed ‘Agent Provocateur’ law: Unjust and unjustified,” Times of Israel, December 16)

The Washington Post’s use of “progressive” provided a semantic halo for Israel-based NGOs including B’Tselem, Peace Now and New Israel Fund. Did the paper mean to imply that their critics are “reactionary,” without substantive objections? More accurately, B’Tselem (whose statistics are at times unreliable—for one example of several, see “UPDATE: In 2007, B’Tselem Casualty Count Doesn’t Add Up” CAMERA, Nov. 2, 2008) is a pro-Palestinian movement; Peace Now anti-settlement (as The Post indirectly implied); and New Israel Fund a periodic donor to anti-government groups.

(For a detailed look at anti-Israel NGO’s and their international funding that mentions both New Israel Fund and NGO-Monitor’s Steinberg, see “Ford Foundation still funding anti-Israel groups, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Aug. 14, 2008.)

Some European- and New Israel Fund-backed NGOs stigmatize Israel’s reputation abroad. Earlier in 2015, The Post featured war crimes allegations regarding the Israel Defense Forces by a group called Breaking the Silence. In doing so, the newspaper acknowledged the claims were anonymous and impossible to verify independently (“Breaking the Silence—and Filling it With Propaganda,” July 24).
CAMERA noted that “Breaking the Silence advertises itself as a not-for profit Israeli organization, but receives a great deal of foreign donations. These come mostly from European groups or governments opposed to Israeli policies if not to Israel itself.
The company they keep
“For example, Broederlijk Delen, a Belgian Christian charity, supports Breaking the Silence. It also donates large sums to anti-Israel groups. Another significant funder of Breaking the Silence is Terre Solidaire, a French company that has boycotted Israeli products or service providers such as the Orange telephone firm.
“According to NGO-Monitor, the more recipients of such European money publicize what Breaking the Silence calls the ‘catastrophes of Israel,’ the more funds foreign donors provide.”
Debating the role of NGOs in Israel is important, Steinberg’s The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed asserted. “These organizations’ invective, their propaganda campaigns and their attacks on Israel, with the assistance of foreign governments, will escalate further. … The dangers of being turned into a pariah state through these international campaigns outweigh the costs of stigmatizing NGOs and limiting their travel.”

The Post’s editorial concluded, “Israel’s democracy has been a pillar of strength through years of siege. It is not always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the state or those in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of democracy, and ultimately, the mark of an open and free society.”

But what about groups that don’t just criticize a government or politicians, but also undermine, through false propaganda, a country’s legitimacy—and rely heavily on foreign funds from often-hostile sources to do so? In the United States, even the most innocuous paid lobbyists for foreign governments
must register as foreign agents. Steinberg observed that Justice Minister Shaked’s bill “would label NGOs funded by foreign governments as ‘foreign agents’ in publications and other activities.”

Draconian, in light of some Israel-based NGOs’ recurrent function as accomplices to anti-Israeli foreign funders? Or necessary, especially for a democracy under siege? Post readers deserved, but did not get, both sides of the story.

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