Reform leader says NGO bill would ‘weaken Israel’s moral and civic fabric’

Rabbi Jonah Pesner calls legislation an attempt to demonize groups critical of Israeli policies

Peace Now activists protest an NGO funding bill proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked outside her residence in Tel Aviv, December 26, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Peace Now activists protest an NGO funding bill proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked outside her residence in Tel Aviv, December 26, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, came out Monday against the so-called NGO bill currently going through the Knesset, describing it as “troubling” and antithetical to Israel’s democratic foundation.

“Legislation recently approved by Israel’s cabinet that would silence the voices of many nonprofits that engage in the critical work of a democratic people — ensuring human rights for all — is deeply troubling,” he said in a statement. “The effect of this bill will be to demonize nonprofit organizations that are critical of Israel’s policies towards Arabs and Palestinians and label Israeli citizens who work for these organizations as foreign meddlers.”

The cabinet-sponsored bill requires any NGO receiving more than 50 percent of its funding from a foreign government to include details of its funding in all official and promotional documents. It also mandates that representatives of these groups wear a badge in the Knesset — similar to the ones lobbyists wear — identifying their organization’s source of foreign funding, or face a financial penalty.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the nationalist Jewish Home party, who proposed the bill, said last year that such a rule would “label the foreign interest of different states, which seek to enable NGOs here, and in whose name they give hundreds of millions of shekels.”

But critics in Israel and abroad say the proposal unfairly targets left-wing groups who do not toe the government’s line, a suspicion that’s become intensified since a list was released last week of the 25 groups being targeted — 23 of which are left-wing organizations, including B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Ir Amim and Yesh Din.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner (screen capture: YouTube)
Rabbi Jonah Pesner (screen capture: YouTube)

In his statement, Pesner described the majority of the groups as human and civil rights activists. He characterized their work as necessary for the health of Israel’s society and lambasted efforts to prevent it.

“Israeli human rights workers and organizations are dedicated to promoting and preserving the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence,” he said. “By challenging Israeli authorities to investigate, prosecute and deter civil and human rights violations wherever they occur, these nonprofits serve as a crucial compass in places where there is the potential for moral failure.”

Since Shaked’s proposal began working its way through the legislative process, several progressive American Jewish organizations publicly opposed the bill, and a source familiar with the situation told The Times of Israel, in December 2015, that an “ad hoc coalition” of both American and Israeli left-wing groups would form to attempt to block the bill from becoming law, including Americans for Peace Now, B’Tselem, J Street, New Israel Fund and Rabbis for Human Rights, among others.

The Religious Action Center, the political wing of the Reform Jewish Movement, was not among the groups mentioned. But the RAC’s announcing its public opposition adds to the chorus of American groups dismayed by the bill.

Pesner expressed concern on Monday that if such legislation were to become law, it would weaken the link many Americans feel to the Jewish state.

“For many years Israel prided itself on the existence of these organizations, and one of the most significant links that the American people have to Israel is a shared commitment to a strong, healthy and thriving democracy where human rights advocates are seen as part of the fabric of civic life,” he said. “We strongly hope that this bill does not become law and that efforts instead are made to strengthen, not weaken, Israel’s moral and civic fabric.”

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