How to Tackle Foreign-Funded NGOs? Ask Britain

The fierce opposition by the Israeli Left to stripping foreign-funded, political NGOs of their charitable status is far from controversial - in fact, it's common practice in much of the world.

David Gross

OpEds David Gross
David Gross

My friend Joel Braunold and his colleague Huda Abuarquob wrote movingly recently (A bigger threat than BDS: anti-normalization), pleading that the powers that be allow the space for people-to-people initiatives to take root and flourish. If there is something that everyone across the political spectrum can agree on, it is that we have to find a paradigm for sustainable coexistence, so that ultimately the bloodshed that has dogged this land can be left behind.

Yet I was disappointed that the panacea that they prescribed was to take aim at the legislative moves to bring more transparency and corporate governance to NGOs that function here in Israel. Let us take one of the bills that is making its way through the Knesset under the sponsorship of MK Bezalel Smotrich: All NGOs that receive funding from foreign governments will be considered by the law as lobbyists and as such will have to adjust their activities accordingly.

Now, this might dismay those who work for Btselem, Breaking the Silence and other similar groups, whose reliance on foreign governments is well-documented. Whether serving as advisors to the Goldstone or Schabas-Davis Reports, making baseless and unverified accusations against the IDF and other activities that only seek to besmirch the reputation of Israel, especially abroad, one wonders why anyone would think that it would be reasonable for such groups to retain charitable status.

Yet, in the interests of fairness, let us further consider the legislation itself; is it proportional? Is it an egregious overreach of the State? The simple solution would be to consider what is the case in other countries. For instance, in the UK, the Charity Commission gives the following advice:

“An organisation which has purposes which include the promotion of human rights by seeking a change in the law, or a shift in government policy, or a reversal of a government decision has (at least in part) political purposes and cannot be a charity.”

“In exceptional cases, an organisation’s purpose may be contrary to UK public policy –

e.g. a purpose which undermines national security. This would not be charitable.”

There is of course more in the same vein, but as one can see groups that promote human rights do not have a carte blanche, and these legislative steps only bring the law in Israel up to the same standards elsewhere. By way of further comparison, anyone who has been involved in the NGO world in the United States will be well versed in the details of forming a 501(c)(3) charity. The legislation governing the conduct of these organisations is clear:

“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

It seems redundant to have to make the point, but how far do you think that an American charity would get if they sued the IRS for precluding their ability to exercise their freedom of expression? Yet again, we see that bringing Israeli legislation into line with other leading countries is not only needed but frankly, long overdue.

Many of the institutions and processes are in need of radical reform in Israel, not least the electoral system. To suggest that a few modest steps in the direction of accountability and transparency stands as an existential threat to future coexistence makes a mockery of the good work being done right now, and distracts us from the real challenges that yet remain.