Critics decry NGO bill as blow to Israeli democracy
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Critics decry NGO bill as blow to Israeli democracy

Herzog says legislation is ‘bullet between the eyes’ for Israel’s international standing and helps country’s enemies

Zionist Union party leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union party leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition politicians and civil society activists bashed a controversial bill given an initial okay on Sunday which would require non-governmental groups to declare funding from foreign countries, saying it would harm free speech in Israel as well as damage the country’s international standing.

The so-called NGO bill, which was proposed by the cabinet, was unanimously passed earlier in the day by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, green-lighting coalition support for the measure.

Zionist Union party chief Isaac Herzog called the passage of the measure “a black day for civil liberties, associations, and Israeli thought,” on Twitter.

“The government decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world,” Herzog said in a statement. “Our enemies are giving a big thank you to the Israeli government, which has put us on the same level with the darkest countries in the world.”

MK Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister now in the opposition, said in a tweet the bill is “another brick in the wall of solitude the government is putting up around Israel.”

“This is internal politics at the expense of proper foreign policy,” Livni said. “This is not a law that’s designed for transparency, it’s a law that will mark Israelis.”

In addition to coming clean on their foreign funding, representatives of NGOs will also be required to wear an identification badge whenever they attend sessions in the Knesset that reflects their group’s foreign funding.

A Peace Now activists holding a sign reading "fighting against the occupation and for human rights" at a protest against the NGO bill in Tel Aviv on December 26, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
A Peace Now activists holding a sign reading “fighting against the occupation and for human rights” at a protest against the NGO bill in Tel Aviv on December 26, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The bill would have NGO representatives wear a tag similar to those worn by lobbyists — or face a NIS 29,000 ($7,500) fine.

Critics say the bill unfairly targets left-leaning NGOs and groups critical of the government.

Almost all of the groups that will be affected by the bill identify with the political left, as those NGOs receive funding from foreign governments while those on the political right are mainly funded by private donors, who are not subject to scrutiny by the bill.

The bill’s proponents contend that the funding of NGOs by mainly European governments amounts to interference in Israeli domestic matters and pushes foreign interests in the guise of human rights advocacy.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who proposed the legislation, said after the passage that the measure would not impact freedom of speech.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni during a party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni during a party meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shaked addressed concerns voiced by European Union ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Anderse, who had already attacked the bill in an earlier meeting with the minister several weeks ago.

“The European Union ambassador spoke out today against the bill and said that in his opinion the law is a blow to democracy, and asked Israel to ‘refrain from action which damage freedom of speech and freedom of assembly,'” she said. “I want to reassure the ambassador and assure him that the bill doesn’t impact freedom of speech at all. It can’t be that the European Union donates to NGOs that are acting in the name of Israel, when in practice they are used as a tool by foreign countries to implement their policies.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, December 27, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, December 27, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Zehava Galon, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, called the bill a “continuation of the political hunting, chasing, and silencing of human rights groups and left-wing groups, who criticize the behavior of the government.”

Galon charged that the bill was intended “to damage the legitimacy and activities of NGOs who identify with the political left-wing and human rights organizations, as a first step to marking [them] before making [them] illegal and stopping their activities.”

The New Israel Fund, which funnels money to many of the groups which will be affected by the bill, said the measure was not about transparency but rather about stifling human rights campaigns.

“In the past few weeks we have been witnesses to a campaign of incitement that was intended to advance the NGO bill of Ayelet Shaked,” the New Israel Fund said in response to the approval of the bill.

“The New Israel Fund is in favor of transparency, but the proposed law does not try to advance the values of transparency, rather intends to selectively silence and politically hound human rights organizations.”

Adalah, a legal aid group for Israeli Arabs, echoed Galon’s warnings.

“The demand to wear special badges to identify people and organizations against a background of their views or identity is familiar from the most criminal regimes, and represents an act of humiliation and incitement against citizens and against the legitimate activities of organizations,” the groups said in a statement. “This is the beginning of a process whose final aim is the silencing of organizations that don’t agree with government policies.”

Now that the legislation has passed the ministerial committee, it will be sent to the Knesset for a preliminary vote. The upcoming vote is expected to be a tough one, however, as the ruling coalition has only a two-seat majority in the Knesset and some coalition MKs have already declared that they will not support it in its current form.

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