After months of debate and rancor, Israel has joined the ranks of nations placing NGOs that receive funding from sources outside their national borders in a special category requiring additional scrutiny. The Knesset on Monday enacted a law raising the public disclosure requirements for NGOs that receive funding from foreign governments. Is this a move toward greater transparency or an attempt to silence opposition to government policy? Depends on who you are listening to.
The law, approved by a 57–48 margin, establishes a new of reporting standards for NGOs which receive more than half of their funding from foreign government sources. The new law will not provide new information be made public, as compared with prior rules. It does require those NGOs who cross the 50 percent mark for foreign funding to call special attention to this fact by requiring them to include this information in their reports to the registrar of nonprofit associations and in all their official publications. They are also required to include a list of donors and their countries on their websites and to identify their funding sources when they appear at public meetings.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put his support behind the bill, saying it will “prevent an absurd situation in which foreign countries meddle in the internal affairs of Israel by funding NGOs and without the Israeli public’s knowledge. Contrary to claims on the left, the bill’s approval will increase transparency, will encourage the creation of a debate which truly reflects public opinion in Israel, and will strengthen democracy.”
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Critics of the bill noted that NGOs receiving support from private foreign donors are not required to meet these standards. Because of this distinction between public and private sources, of the 27 organizations currently believed to be required to make these new declarations, 25 are human rights organizations that are seen as opponents of the Netanyahu government. Conversely, many of the organizations that are heavily funded by private foreign donors and thus exempt from the new regulations support Israeli control of the Occupied Territories and oppose a two-state solution. J.J. Goldberg, writing in The Forward, describes these as organizations whose “activities involve taking the government to task for failing to enforce its own laws, whether on settlement construction in unauthorized areas, equal treatment for Israeli Arab citizens or timely processing of refugee applications. The purpose of the new law is to limit efforts by Israeli organizations that seek enforcement of Israeli law.”
Between January 2012 and July 2014, at least 50 counties passed laws that crack down on NGOs. These laws range from foreign funding bans to burdensome government reporting requirements to limitations on freedom of expressions. These laws are far-reaching. Russia’s infamous 2012 law, for example, requires that some organizations that receive foreign funding register as “foreign agents”—a label that itself signals risk for these organizations. Similar laws are being proposed and passed in many countries, from Kyrgyzstan to Cambodia, Ethiopia to Egypt.
The new law makes life more difficult for the organizations required to meet the new standards. Whether the difficulty will limit their work and make them less effective remains to be seen. From a broader perspective, though, Israel now finds itself with strange bedfellows and with a challenge to its international reputation.—Martin Levine