Editorial Opinion

NGO law threatens the democratic fabric of the Jewish state


By the Ledger Editorial Advisory Board

There is good reason that a number of American Jewish organizations have expressed concern over the proposed so-called “Transparency Law” working its way through the Israeli legislative labyrinth. The law concerns the status of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Israel. The proposed law, with an Orwellian title designed to camouflage its true purpose, will construct a new layer of self-righteous regulations designed to ostracize further a range of largely foreign-funded human rights NGOs that conduct work in Israel.

The law, introduced by Israel’s new and decidedly right-wing justice minister Ayelet Shaked (from settler-dominated coalition partner Jewish Home), seeks to single out for punitive abuse foreign-funded human rights NGOs that she and her allies regard as inherently hostile to the Jewish state.

Many of these NGOs are doing important work to push back against the human rights abuses that are the natural byproduct of the life-and-death struggle of the seething Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Truth be told, there are few governments in the world that would welcome having their human rights indiscretions laid bare for all to see. In this, Israel is no different from the United States.

There are American legislators who regard such groups, like Amnesty International, as enemies to the U.S. war on terrorism.

Think of the debates over water-boarding and the still unresolved Guantanamo Detention Center a decade ago, and the singular discomfort such revelations created for American war tacticians.

The argument against human rights NGOs is lively here in the United States, but no responsible American politician has suggested outlawing or distinguishing these groups because of their funding. True, there exists a Foreign Agents Registration Act, but it has nothing to do with the funding of NGOs.

In Israel, many of the NGOs that engage in human rights issues are embraced by the secular, progressive left. But let’s remember for a moment that most Israel-based NGOs are not sinister alien infections foisted upon the Jewish state by intrusive European Jew-haters. Groups like B’tzelem and Breaking the Silence are staffed and run by Israeli sabra Jews. No doubt some of these NGOs promote a view that casts Israel as a repressive regime skirting the limits of civilized behavior, while providing a free pass for the far more brutal Palestine Authority or murderous Hamas theocracy in Gaza. Many of these NGOs are undoubtedly hostile to the very notion of an “ethnic democracy” which offers advantages to citizens of a particular ethnic (in this case – Jewish), rather than civic, composition.

The big difference between the United States and Israel is the amount of pushback such organizations receive. The nationalistic jingoism of the Netanyahu administration has zero-tolerance for such criticism, and therefore seeks to smear such watchdog work as traitorous to the very existence of a Jewish state.

This is poppycock, as the American Jewish Committee and the Union of Reform Judaism have properly declared. American Jews ought to take note of this bald attempt by Justice Minister Shaked to vilify those groups that advocate for human rights in Israel and in the occupied territories. It is not enough to be “informed witnesses” to the daily assault on democratic practices as encouraged by Netanyahu and his band of settler-legislators. If human rights abuses are inimical to the conduct of a democracy, they are equally inimical to the conduct of a Jewish democracy.

Israel is supposed to be a Jewish and democratic state. In this most recent iteration of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership – surrounded by nationalist ideologues with neither the time nor patience for the niceties of “the human rights agenda” – the very principles of democratic rule are under assault.

This isn’t a case of washing our dirty laundry in public, or engaging from afar in a matter best left to Israelis themselves. This is a case of standing for a Jewish and democratic state. It is joining with a sizable segment of the Israeli citizenry who are standing against the populist, theocratic right-turns of the Netanyahu age, which threaten both the Jewish and democratic contours of this still wondrous miracle in our days.

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