Israel’s new NGO Bill – what it is and what it means

 What is the bill? What does the bill say?

NOTE: This post was updated on January 21, 2016, to reflect changes introduced to the draft bill, as submitted by the cabinet to the Knesset on January 18, 2016. The language of the bill (Hebrew) can be found here. 

The bill’s official title is “Amendment to Bill on disclosure regarding those supported by a foreign political entity (Increasing transparency for those supported mainly by foreign political entities)." It is also known by its backers as the “Transparency Bill.” The bill is an amendment to an existing 2011 law, which determines the disclosure requirements of Israeli non-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs or NPOs) that receive funding from “Foreign Political Entities” (foreign governments, the European Union or the United Nations).

The bill is a new incarnation of previous versions that were introduced to the Knesset’s docket by right- wing members of the Israeli parliament but never made it beyond the first stages of the legislative process. This version is different because it was introduced by a member of the Cabinet, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and because the Government’s Committee on Legislation has now formally endorsed it, paving the way for a series of up-or-down votes in the Knesset.
The bill stipulates that:

  • An NGO that receives most of its funding from “Foreign Political Entities” during a given financial year will be required to disclose that fact in its publications, including any visual or textual publications in television, print or on the internet. Any official report published by an effected NGO will have to also disclose the identity of the foreign governments funding it. The bill does not state that such a disclosure statement would be required when a representative of an affected NGO is interviewed on the radio or on TV.
  • In every written interaction with an elected official or civil servant, and in any oral interaction of this sort that is documented in a protocol, representatives of affected NGOs will be required to state that their organizations are being funded primarily by foreign governments.
  • In all interactions with elected officials and civil servants, as well as in their reports and in their publications in the media, affected NGOs will be required to state not only the fact that they are funded primarily by foreign governments, but they will also be required to identify the governments that have funded them in the years that are relevant to the interaction, the publication, or the report.
  • Violating any of the above will trigger a fine, imposed by the government's NGO Registrar. 

 What is the stated rationale for the bill?

The bill is being touted for the general public as simply a matter of transparency – i.e., making sure that Israelis and their elected officials have information about foreign government funding of the activities of Israeli NGOs. Minister Shaked’s deeper rationale for the bill, as stated in a November 1 ,2015 statement, is that by enhancing the “transparency” of NGOs funded by foreign governments, the influence of these foreign governments on Israeli government policies will be diminished, and that, in turn, would diminish the “blatant interference of foreign countries in Israel’s domestic affairs by means of money.”  

Is the bill really about “transparency”?

No. Transparency has existed for years. Enhanced transparency for NGOs receiving foreign government funding is already in effect by virtue of the 2011 law. According to that law, all non-profit organizations receiving funding from foreign governments must already disclose all such funding in their quarterly reports to the government’s NGO Registrar, and must post this information publicly. The NGOs in question do, in fact, publish these details on their websites, fully available to the public.

Moreover, if transparency was truly the issue in question, then the bill would have been written to require disclosure not only with respect to foreign government funding (which goes almost entirely to progressive civil society NGOs and NGOs working on peace and human rights) but also with respect to foreign individuals (who provide massive amounts of funding for right-wing NGOs). As written, the bill permits right-wing NGOs to continue to maintain secrecy with respect to their funders, while NGOs on the left, which are already transparent about their donors, are publicly branded, in effect, as agents of foreign governments.

If it’s not about transparency, what is the bill about, then?

This bill comes in the context of repeated efforts by this government and previous right-wing governments to silence progressive Israeli organizations, to intimidate them, to demean and degrade them, and to diminish their influence, in order to quash dissent against government policies. Minister Shaked does not explicitly state in her bill that this is her goal, but right-wing Knesset members who in the past submitted versions of this bill did so, explicitly.

Even setting that context aside, this bill clearly portrays Israeli civil society organizations – organizations that obey the law and work to advance an agenda that differs from the current government’s worldview – as “foreign agents” which are disloyal to the state, which represent foreign interests, and which act to undermine the state and its institutions. This bill does not only seek to stigmatize these progressive groups but also seeks to humiliate them by demanding that they stigmatize themselves through slapping a “warning label” on their public communications.

The bill requires no transparency from right-wing groups – who are promoting an agenda that lines up comfortably with that of the current government – although they are massively funded by foreign donors.

As such, the clear objective of this bill is to enhance the hegemony of this government’s narrative by silencing dissent.

Why is the bill discriminatory?

As alluded to above, the bill is structured in a way that if passed into law it will only affect progressive groups, since right-wing groups – whose agendas align comfortably with that of the current Israeli government – do not receive funding from foreign governments. These same groups, however, receive large amounts of funding from foreign individuals and entities, including foundations and non-governmental foreign organizations.

Whereas governmental funds are already public – subject to scrutiny and transparency both on the donor’s end and on the recipient’s end – private funds are not. Such funds could come from shady sources, from criminals, or, indeed, from individuals who seek to engage in “blatant interference…in Israel’s domestic affairs by means of money.” One such foreign donor who uses money to interfere in Israel’s domestic affairs and advance a far-right agenda is US gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson.

In the past (November 2011), when Knesset members submitted a similar bill that sought to limit foreign government funding for Israeli NGOs, the government’s own legal advisor, Yehuda Weinstein, wrote that limiting the law to foreign government funding and excluding private foreign funding is discriminatory. It “raises concern of harming the equality principle,” Weinstein then wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Why is the bill dangerous?

The bill is dangerous because it is intended to harm organizations that do very important work in the service of Israeli society, its national security, and its ethical, moral standing.  Contrary to the accusations of the bill’s supporters, the NGOs in questions do not serve foreign entities or represent foreign interests. They are Israeli organizations that represent and serve Israeli interests.

Israeli human rights organizations serve as watchdogs for the benefit of Israeli society. Israeli civil rights groups are guardians of Israeli democracy. Israeli peace organizations advance peace for the benefit of Israel. The fact that these goals do not correspond with this government’s agenda does not mean that these NGOs are illegitimate. Like any healthy democracy, Israel needs strong civil society groups that advance human rights, civil rights, peace and equality, particularly at times of heightened terrorism and threat, when such important values don’t enjoy the kind of popular backing that they deserve.

The bill, if passed, would add Israel to the list of notorious, anti-democratic regimes that limit the freedom of their countries’ civil societies. It would therefore cause damage not only to the NGOs that it targets, and not only to their important goals, but to Israel’s international image and reputation, and would therefore invite more of the international pressure that the bill allegedly strives to prevent.

Can this bill be amended or improved?

The bill has already been amended, after being endorsed by the Cabinet's Legislation Committee, and may be further amended, before being brought to a vote in the Knesset. It remains to be seen whether such amendments will be merely cosmetic, or whether they can transform this overtly ideological, anti-democratic bill into legislation that befits a healthy democracy supportive of a robust civil society.