The sides being taken over a series of bills being presented to Israel’s Knesset about the funding of non-governmental organizations are predictable. Israeli left-wingers and liberal Americans are denouncing the efforts by some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party are trying to cut off funding of left-wing groups critical of Israel’s anti-terror operations from foreign donors. For opponents of these laws, nothing less is at stake in this discussion than the defense of Israeli democracy. They’re right but not in the way they think.
As I wrote last week, the dustup about this effort has escalated. In particular, the Reform movement of Judaism has stepped up its criticisms of those who have been singling out the leaders of various left-wing Israeli groups as aiding Palestinian terrorists. Leaders of Reform specifically demanded that Prime Minister Netanyahu denounce the ads critical of the left-wingers as a form of incitement that was morally equivalent to the advocacy of violence that has become the hallmark of Palestinian society. They also insisted that he denounce those who attacked Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for appearing at a conference sponsored by Haaretz at which members of one of the controversial groups — Breaking the Silence — also appeared.
On the other hand, the cause of those advocating limits on foreign contributions to that same group and others like it got a boost when Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of Israel’s opposition parties, announced his support for a related bill that would ban groups that “vilify” the Israel Defense Forces from getting foreign funding from those who support the BDS — boycott, divest and sanction — movement against Israel.
Lapid may be denounced as something of a political chameleon and a poll-driven opportunist whose positions are all over the place. But his willingness to get out front on this issue and place himself on the other side of the divide from Breaking the Silence and its fellow critics of the IDF ought to alert those foreign friends of Israel supporting the left-wing groups why Israelis are so angry about them.
Let’s start by again noting that any effort to enact laws to defund these groups is inherently problematic. Unlike the United States, Israel has no First Amendment protections of speech, so it is legally possible for the Knesset to cut left-wing NGOs off from foreign funding or even to ban them outright. That’s something that couldn’t happen in the United States. Whether you support or oppose Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, and the others being targeted by the right in a controversial ad or the legislation being currently considered, the notion of cutting off political speech in this manner is deeply problematic.
So long as their activities are not in and of themselves illegal, then they shouldn’t be banned. Though those who say there is no comparison between foreign funding for causes that are truly charitable or intended to support the state and those that seem bent on tearing it down have a point, the principle of equal protection under the law ought to apply to all political organizations.
As for the attacks on Rivlin, Reform leaders are right to praise him for his efforts at outreach to the non-Orthodox denominations, especially when they are still being subjected to unfair attacks such as the recent disgraceful episode in which Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau bashed Education Minister Naphtali Bennett who is a fervent right-winger for visiting a school run by the Conservative movement of Judaism.
But all this talk about defending democracy is also more than a little disingenuous. Even if efforts to cut off funding to Israeli NGO’s are misguided, what’s at stake here isn’t really the pushback of the center-right majority against left-wing dissidents. Rather, it is the way the Israeli left is seeking to overrule the verdict of Israeli democracy as expressed by the voters in the last 15 years.
As Lapid’s move makes clear, the settlement movement and the far right in Israel aren’t the only ones upset by those who take sides with anti-Zionists and Palestinians bent on destroying the Jewish state. If Breaking the Silence is reviled by most Israelis it is because they know the basic premise of the group — that the IDF silences dissent and is carrying out atrocities against Arabs on a constant basis — is a flat-out lie. That a centrist like Lapid would denounce Breaking the Silence — a group that is regularly hosted on American college campuses and in Jewish communities by those claiming to be supporters of Israel — as not merely wrong but guilty of “subversion” and “undermining the foundations of the state” is significant. That left-wing NGOs get a great deal of financial support from hostile European governments and open supporters of BDS infuriates Israelis and understandably so. Given their willingness to support such groups, it speaks volumes about how out of touch with the reality of Israel and its struggle against Palestinian terror that many American Jews and leaders like those of the Reform movement truly are.
Left-wing supporters of Breaking the Silence are not defending democracy so much as expressing frustration with it. Since the collapse of Oslo and the Palestinians began turning down offers of statehood in 2000, an Israeli consensus has held that more territorial withdrawals such as the disastrous retreat from Gaza would be insane. Most Israelis understand that the Palestinian terrorists aren’t stabbing, shooting and bombing Jews because of their desire for a two-state solution but because they want to eliminate the Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. They know that groups that seek to undermine the IDF or stop it from taking action against terror are doing neither the Arabs nor the Jews any good
The NGO legislation will probably fail, and that’s a good thing. American Jews who back groups like Breaking the Silence may not like Israel’s government and may wish that peace was possible. But they are neither saving it from itself or defending democracy. To the contrary, they are giving comfort to those who wish to destroy that democracy.