What explains the growing distress in the United States about a bill being debated in the Israeli Knesset? The controversial measure aims at forcing left-wing non-governmental agencies that get a majority of their funds from foreign governments and related agencies to essentially be labeled as foreign agents. The merits of the bill are, as I’ve written before, debatable, but the terms of that debate are predictably partisan as the country’s left-wing minority reflexively oppose any measure promulgated by the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu government. But as seems to happen with just about everything in Israel, minor kerfuffles are not only inflated into major issues out of all proportion to their actual importance. They also become excuses for foreign critics of the Jewish state to opine about its decline and eventual fall. No better example of this type of commentary can be found than a Washington Post editorial that ran last weekend about the NGO bill under the headline, “A danger to Israeli democracy.”
The piece follows the playbook being used by Netanyahu’s critics in which the bill is seen as not merely wrongheaded but an example of how the country’s center-right majority is eroding Israel’s democratic values. That’s become a staple of critiques of the Jewish state in recent years and has been sounded by left-wing groups like J Street and its cheerleaders in the press that believe Israel must be saved from itself. Such voices believe Zionism can only be rescued by foreign pressure that will force Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians. More territorial withdrawals and the uprooting of West Bank settlements will, they think, magically create the peace the country needs. The fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected offers of withdrawals and statehood in exchange for peace and that they used the Gaza withdrawal to create an independent state in all but name that is terrorist launching pad are treated as irrelevant. For the left, ideology trumps all, including such inconvenient facts that have led Israeli voters to elect Benjamin Netanyahu and his party in three consecutive elections with no end to their dominance of the country’s government in the foreseeable future.
Faced with a political position that seems to have made them a permanent minority since the collapse of Oslo, the left looks to its foreign cheerleaders to help them get their way. Part of that is in the form of pressure from the Obama administration that tried and failed to persuade the Palestinians to make peace with Israel. Part of it is the function of foreign governments that help fund left-wing groups including NGOs, whose primary purpose is to act as critics of both the Israel Defense Forces as they seek to defend the country from yet another Palestinian terrorist offensive.
That is the context of the debate about the NGO bill. But for all the hot air being expended on this issue, even the Post admits that the legislation doesn’t amount to much. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked justifies the final version of the legislation as being no different from American laws that require lobbyists for foreign political entities to register as foreign agents. She defends her plan as providing transparency. The Post dismisses this argument by rightly pointing out that existing Israeli law already provides for disclosure mechanisms. But it claims that making lobbyists for such groups wear badges identifying them foreign agents in the Knesset is “odious.”
Of course, the notion that this is a threat to democracy might be a bit more believable if American lobbyists of all sorts, including foreign agents, weren’t forced to do the same thing on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures around the country. To compare the measure, as the Post does, to the way NGOs are treated in authoritarian states like Russia and China, where government critics are in constant danger of repression and official violence, is as absurd as it is insulting and inaccurate.
It is true, as I have noted previously, that there is a touch of hypocrisy in pointing out that any Israeli groups are funded from abroad since just about every charitable and political cause in Israel have always depended on help from foreign donors. But at the heart of this discussion is the left’s resentment that it is being forced to own the fact that groups like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are primarily funded by foreign governments, not Jewish donors. As the Post notes, right-wing groups and charities depend on individual contributors from throughout the Diaspora, which means the NGO law wouldn’t apply to them. But it fails to explain why ordinary Israelis shouldn’t think there is an invidious distinction between groups funded by friends of Israel and those backed by nations that are openly hostile to their country.
Left-wing polemicists like Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev rail against American Jews who choose not to seek to help him and his friends depose Netanyahu as participating in a “betrayal of democracy.” Since the majority of American Jews are liberals in American politics, he thinks they are obligated to support by any means the efforts of the Israeli left. He’s right in the sense that most American Jews aren’t particularly fond of Netanyahu. Nor are they enthusiastic about his policies and, as they showed when they were put to the test over the Iran nuclear deal. There was little enthusiasm for supporting Israel’s position on that dangerous measure since it required them to oppose the head of the Democratic Party that gets the lion’s share of their votes.
But if most American Jews and their organizations aren’t heading to the barricades over the NGO bill or actively seeking to support efforts to pressure Israel or its government, perhaps it’s because a sensible majority of them actually support the concept of Israeli democracy. They understand that Israelis resent those that attack their own nation while it is under fire. And most probably share their disgust at the fact that these groups are funded by entities that don’t wish Israel well.
Friends of Israel should ignore the huffing and puffing about Shaked’s plan whether it comes from liberal editorial pages or the intemperate rants to be found at Haaretz. Those NGO’s are free to continue their activities, and nothing in the legislation will prevent them from doing so. But the key point to remember here is that the Israeli people have repeatedly rejected the left at the ballot box. What the left is trying to do with their current campaign is to undermine Israeli democracy, not save it.