Last week, the Knesset enacted what is known as the Elkin Bill on foreign governmental funding to Israeli NGOs. When MK Ze'ev Elkin was asked why his bill does not deal with funding by wealthy individuals, who may be equally suspect of harboring hidden agendas, he responded with feigned naiveté that reflects the entire discourse on the matter in Israel. Elkin explained that requests had been made not to include private donors in the bill, as some foundations insist on giving anonymously.
Elkin’s idyll, of Jews who collect penny to penny to secretly and thanklessly donate to organizations is a far cry from reality. Existing laws already protect small individual donors, as organizations are not required to publish the names of persons who donate less than 20,000 shekels. Elkin is not protecting shy Jews, but rather, very wealthy donors with extremist political interests who donate many millions to Israeli NGOs. These donations, vastly greater than those given by Western governments to NGOs, go unsupervised.
Generating hype around foreign governmental funding is a diversionary tactic. The reason why the campaign to slander human rights organizations is directed at this issue is simple: Foreign governments do not fund organizations identified with the settlement enterprise and the extreme Right. And why is this? Because settlement activity is illegal under international law and those governments do not fund illegal activity.
But don’t waste your time feeling sorry for those organizations. Wealthy donors, oligarchs, and Christian evangelists keep their coffers full.
Wealthy Jews use their capital to influence Israeli politics in various ways: Irving Moskowitz, for example, takes his money and spends it on turning east Jerusalem Jewish; Sheldon Adelson funds free newspaper Israel Today, widely considered to be Netanyahu’s mouthpiece. Christian evangelists spend some of their resources on planting trees in a Jewish National Fund forest, a noble enterprise had residents of the Bedouin village al-Arakib not been forced from their homes as a result. And so on and so forth.
In contrast to the unsupervised flow of money from wealthy foreigners, the funding given by foreign governments is totally transparent. The recipient organizations have been required, by statute, to report these donations. As for donations by private individuals, nonprofit organizations in Israel have had to report contributions greater than 20,000 shekels. B'Tselem, of course, strictly complies with these requirements. Too bad we can’t say that about many of the organizations that attack us, which hypocritically demand transparency from us while they shun transparency when it comes to their own operations.
No such laws in West
Israeli human rights organizations receive foreign funding from a few sources: Private foundations, private donors, and Western countries. Supporters of the Elkin Law have got it all wrong: The funding is not made, as they contend, behind the back of the Israeli government. It is made openly, with optimum transparency and supervision. Another fact worth considering is that funding from the European Union arrives in accordance with agreements Israel has with the EU that encourage donations to Israel to advance our common values – economic freedom, democracy, scientific and technological cooperation, and human rights.
Also, the funding that rights’ groups in Israel receive from the EU, as a percentage of the EU’s total funding for Israeli bodies and organizations, is miniscule, with most of the money going to universities, hospitals, research institutes, and so on.
And let’s not forget that the State of Israel receives billions of dollars annually from foreign governments. The United States gives billions to fund Israel’s defense establishment. Hundreds of millions of Euros arrive in Israel in the form of grants from governments in EU countries to advance science, health, and other matters. Where would Israel be without this aid? Possibly much poorer and far less advanced than we are.
Moreover, one wonders why the Elkin Law includes a special exemption for the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod, and the Jewish National Fund. Do national institutions receive money from foreign governments? If not, why do they require the exemption?
Another mistaken claim proffered is that other countries have a similar law. In fact, Western countries, including the US, don’t restrict foreign-government funding of local NGOs in this way, even when the organizations engage in controversial matters. To illustrate: In 2009, the EU donated 2.6 million Euros to six organizations that were actively engaged in seeking the repeal of capital punishment in the US. None of the organizations had to be registered as a “foreign agent.”
If we look elsewhere, to countries such as Russia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Venezuela, we’ll find they impose restrictions on foreign funding of civil-society organizations. This information, by the way, was readily available to Knesset members, since it appears in a document prepared by the Knesset’s research department.
What the Knesset voted in last week was a softer, largely toothless version of the original bill. The main difference between the two is that, rather than having B'Tselem and other nonprofits complete a form and send it to the Registrar of Amutot once a year, which B'Tselem has been doing, now B'Tselem and other nonprofits will have to send in the form quarterly.
Not a meaningful change, to be sure. At another level, though, the statute is significant, and worrisome. There is no cause for celebration when the Knesset enacts a statute that moves Israel a step closer to countries that see fit to restrict NGO activity and criticism of government policy.
Sarit Michaeli is B’Tselem’s spokeswoman
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