ISRAEL, SURROUNDED not only by threats to its existence but also by governments and movements that practice tyranny, is a stubbornly free society. While its democracy is imperfect and rowdy, the bedrock commitment has remained during years of intense conflict. That commitment is precisely why Israel’s parliament should reject proposed legislation that would stigmatize nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from overseas. The proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a democratic state.
The proposed law, introduced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, was approved by a cabinet committee Dec. 27 and sent to the Knesset, where it faces additional debate and votes. It would apply to those organizations that receive more than half their funding from “foreign government entities.” The groups would be required to identify themselves as principally funded from overseas in any public communications and in interactions with government officials, and they would have to list the sources of funding in reports. Members of the groups would also be required to wear a special badge when present in the Knesset, with their name and the name of the NGO. This is now a requirement of lobbyists. Violations could result in stiff fines.
Ms. Shaked has advertised the legislation as providing more transparency, but that is not the real agenda. In fact, the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as Peace Now, B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund and others. The reality is that many of these progressive groups rely on such funding from foreign organizations, and the law would force them to carry an unpleasant label suggesting that they are somehow at odds with Israel’s interests. Millions of dollars are also being sent to Israel to support right-wing causes such as settlement activity, but it comes largely from individual donors, not governments, so it would not be covered by the law. Israel’s nongovernmental organizations are already required, under an earlier law, to file disclosure reports of their funding, so the only effect of the new requirement would be to force them to wear a public badge in a way that is odious.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has made NGO groups register as “foreign agents,” as if they were enemies of the state. In China, the new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations will forbid support from abroad and give oversight to the security apparatus. In both cases, dissent is being purposefully silenced, and valuable services will be denied to people who need them. Israel should not allow itself to be lumped with these regimes.
Israel’s democracy has been a pillar of strength through years of siege. It is not always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the state or those in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of democracy, and, ultimately, the mark of an open and free society.
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