Orwell Would Love Israel's Anti-NGO Bill

Move to Limit Funding Runs Counter to Global U.S. Policy

We Won’t Be Silent: Israeli activists protest anti-NGO bill that would limit funding to human rights groups.
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We Won’t Be Silent: Israeli activists protest anti-NGO bill that would limit funding to human rights groups.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 15, 2011, issue of December 23, 2011.
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Ah, you’re thinking, but these funds target dictatorships like Burma and North Korea, not fellow democracies. Surely we’re not equating Israel with North Korea?

That depends. Most of the endowment’s grants are in evolving democracies, like Nigeria and Moldova, that welcome America’s intervention. Others, like Belarus and Zimbabwe, harass and imprison U.S.-backed activists. Washington judges the level of democracy in other countries partly by the welcome they give such efforts. Israel apparently hasn’t yet decided which side it’s on.

As for Israel’s own foreign politicking, it consists mainly of government-backed agencies that support local organizations in other countries urging Jewish citizens to emigrate. Some countries, including France and Ukraine, deeply resent this activity, largely because of the way it disparages their way of life and seeks to alienate their citizens. In other countries, such as our own, opposition comes mainly from the local Jewish communities. Full disclosure: My kids attend the same Zionist summer camp that their father and grandfather did. I’m all for it. But let’s call a spade a spade.

Then there are the impossibly Orwellian contradictions in the bill itself. To begin with, some of its fattest targets, like B’Tselem, which monitors alleged human-rights violations in the territories, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Israel’s version of the ACLU, are devoted mostly to exposing and challenging government violations of Israel’s own laws. They do this through the courts and the press. Sometimes these cases are upheld, sometimes not. That’s how democracy works.

And how to distinguish the “threatening” NGOs from the “political” or strictly kosher? The threats in the bill include: rejecting Israel’s right to exist, inciting racism, supporting violence against Israel, supporting international indictments of Israeli politicians and soldiers, calling for boycotts of the state or urging Israeli soldiers to disobey orders. NGO Monitor has a list of 23 organizations that would be likely targets. It’s not clear which it regards as “political” and which as threatening.

It’s a slippery exercise. Does opposing Israel’s right to exist include opposing its Jewish character, a key point of contention with the Palestinians? If so, who defines Jewish character? If you keep your tax exemption by favoring Jewish needs over non-Jewish, do you then lose it for inciting racism? What about “supporting” international indictments: Does that include unearthing damaging information that shows up in the indictments, the main charge against some key suspect organizations?

And what if you cross the red lines — advocating soldiers’ insubordination, say, or inciting violence against Israeli troops — with the aid of Israeli government funds? What if you’re a rabbi who urges soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate outposts or calls such demolitions acts of treason? Do you lose your tax exemption (or government salary) for such acts? Or only for pointing them out?

The more you look at it, the more it becomes clear that the effect of the bill — its main intent, in fact — is to restrict or outlaw the advocacy of observing the laws of the state. Orwell would have loved it.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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