Amid growing fury on the Israeli right toward the country’s human rights groups, the Knesset has approved two motions aimed at examining whether there are skeletons in NGO closets.
The separate but similar motions, submitted by the Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud parties, mandate a Knesset investigation of funding sources of left-leaning nongovernmental organizations. The motions, passed January 6 by large majorities, emerged from the Knesset’s two largest right-wing parties.
The response in America from mainstream Jewish groups was swift, and mostly critical of the motions.
In Israel, the sponsor of one of the two measures claims that mandated legal reports filed by NGOs such as Breaking the Silence, which publicizes testimony by Israeli soldiers of alleged Israeli military abuses in the occupied territories, and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, do not tell the full story of where their money comes from.
Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker David Rotem told the Forward that his party is convinced that funding comes from Saudi Arabia, and suspects it has terrorist origins. “If [an NGO] is being backed by terrorists or Al Qaeda, we ought to know,” he said.
At a Knesset party caucus on January 10, Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, said that some NGOs are “terror-aiding organizations.”
Danny Danon, initiator of the Likud-backed motion, wants to report on the extent of “interference” by foreign governments and the European Union in the Israeli political process by ascertaining how much money they are giving to NGOs.
“These organizations have failed to gain public support [in Israel], so they are doing a bypass by receiving funds from foreign governments,” he said, adding that he wants to chair the committee and see that it recommends outlawing such donations.
Some 17 NGOs, including those singled out by the politicians, responded to the motions with a declaration that “similar attempts to silence criticism have failed in the past; this attempt will fail, too.”
The Israeli left, the centrist Kadima party and a small libertarian contingent in Likud have voiced anger. “Recently, the Knesset has knitted together a racist, McCarthyist mix that transcends parties and endangers the State of Israel,” Labor lawmaker Avishay Braverman, the government’s minority affairs minister, declared in the Knesset.
In the United States, a number of Jewish groups were taken aback by the motions, including some that are normally loath to criticize Israel. The American Jewish Committee, nestled well within the mainstream of American Jewish organizational life, issued a statement saying that the Knesset had contravened “the democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength.” AJC’s executive director, David Harris, added in the statement that “the selective targeting of groups critical of the [Israel Defense Forces] runs counter to Israel’s legal and political tradition, and does no service to the one state that is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.”
Harris, through a spokesman, declined to elaborate on the group’s decision to speak out on this issue.
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, which supports several of the groups that are expected to be investigated by the Knesset, said he was “incredibly heartened” by the AJC’s stance.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that the decisions on establishing the committees were “unwise” and that they created “unease.” Yoffie spoke of a “certain ugliness that has emerged in Israel’s political coalition reality,” noting that American Jews “are basically centrists and Israel now has a right-wing coalition.”
The politicians initiating the probes dismissed these criticisms. Danon told the Forward that faced with foreign governments working in their countries against national interests, “every democracy would do the same.” Rotem denounced the charge of McCarthyism as “rubbish.”
“I’m not going to investigate anyone privately as a person, and I’m not going to fire anyone from their job,” he said. “We just want everything to be shining in the sun so that people should know the facts.”
The parties found a strong supporter in the United States in the Zionist Organization of America, which joined them in rebutting their detractors. “The American Jewish Committee is mistaken to see any sort of assault on Israel’s democratic traditions,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement released January 10. “To the contrary, anything that results in obliging these groups to reveal their sources of funding and their foreign associations is of democratic service.”
Whatever the reservations of critics in Israel and America, the commissions — one in response to each motion, unless they are merged — will be assembled over the coming weeks. The Knesset plenum will not have opportunity to block them from forming, though lawmakers can try to hamper them from becoming active when they return for a vote on their membership and on their parameters for investigation.
Yet it is unclear exactly what these committees will do once formed. Danon and Rotem both told the Forward that they want to see the committees probing the NGOs’ financial accounts and calling witnesses. But annual accounts are already in the public domain. And ad hoc committees voted into existence by the Knesset, such as these, have no right to compel witnesses to testify or to make public bodies hand over information. This means that from a strictly legal viewpoint, the committees will have no rights above and beyond those of an activist group such as NGO Monitor, which has been probing NGOs critical of Israel for years.
But Haifa University law academic Amnon Reichman said that the parliamentary committees’ clout as official bodies will make it easier for them to secure the cooperation of the government. He believes that the committees could provide forums to release information about the NGOs already held by the Foreign Ministry and other ministries “in a respectable manner.”
“From the right-wing perspective, it is a way to launder this information, so to speak,” he said.
The other main advantage is simply that reports from the Knesset will have a greater “seal of authority” than those from unofficial groups.
Hagai Katz, director of the Center for Third-Sector Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, said that NGOs “don’t have anything to worry about” legally, as he believes them to be law abiding. But from a public relations perspective, he believes that the damage has already been done, as the decisions to establish the commissions have attracted mass publicity. The fact that human rights NGOs are under investigation — whatever the final outcome — is what sticks in people’s minds, Katz said.
“If [the sponsors of the probes] want to give the organizations a hard time, that’s what they’ll do,” he said, adding, “It’s about scaring away donors.”
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