As the makeup and direction of the new government becomes clearer, it is worth making mention of a High Court decision which passed us by our post-election stupor. More surprisingly, the decision displayed a measure of sanity that has been lacking from that particular branch of government in recent years..
The High Court broadly approved the much maligned “Anti-Boycott Law”, which various NGOs, invariably on the Left such as Gush Shalom, Adalah and Btselem, all vociferously attacked as an egregious attack on free speech. Whereas previously, the aforementioned groups and their acolytes could call for boycotts of Israel, the law now leaves them liable to civil damages. In addition, the Finance Minister is empowered to remove any NGO’s tax exemptions that call for Israeli boycotts. The Court also saw fit to vacate the clause which would have allowed claimants against the “boycotters” to claim punitive damages.
Why is this significant?
To start with, the last decade has seen NGOs from across the globe spend as much time in political lobbying as on the actual advocacy of their cause. This would be their prerogative except for two crucial caveats. It is standard practice for charities throughout the world to remain non-partisan. Indeed, in the UK, the Charity Commission has had to reprimand well-known organisations such as the RSPCA and Oxfam for overtly partisan campaigns.
Secondly and perhaps even more perniciously, is the way NGOs, again not exclusively in Israel, have essentially been subcontractors for the promotion and implementation of political agendas. This was brought to light most clearly in the last election cycle, where the activities of V-15 came to prominence.
The last decade has seen NGOs from across the globe spend as much time in political lobbying as on the actual advocacy of their cause.
Obviously, it is the right of any group to put forward, promote and support any policy that they feel would be beneficial for the country. But that sentiment is tarnished when it becomes clear that they are being directed and funded by supposedly non-partisan NGOs such as OneVoice, and the sentiment is simply obliterated when one considers that V-15 was working in concert with a consulting group called 270 Strategies, headed by one Jeremy Bird, who was none other than the director of President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
So where does this ruling leave us, and more importantly, where can we go from here?
Some of my friends have decried this decision saying it will polarise the pro-Israel community, leaving those who identify as “Liberal Zionists” with an invidious choice as to whether to identify as pro-Israel at all. The question all those people have to answer for themselves is whether they really believe a settlement boycott will end there? While they may not see any value in living in Mevo Dotan or in Har Choma for that matter, can they not see that they have already conceded the principled argument for boycotting products from Tel Aviv and Haifa?
In any case, the real elephant in the room that has yet to be discussed is the role of foreign funding in the political process. Many on the left will decry the fact that wealthy individuals such as Sheldon Adelson channel millions of shekels to support specific politicians. The difference is that we know about it because all this money is declared in accordance with the law.
In addition, Israel has always been a country where philanthropy from Diaspora Jewry has formed a cornerstone of its identity. More importantly, it is surely not beyond our ability to construct a framework where philanthropy and third-sector growth can be nurtured without being perverted for narrow partisan agendas.
Instead of scoring political points as to seeing which individuals donate to which political parties, surely the Tax Authority could enforce a Code of Conduct on NGOs maintaining the political neutrality?
My friends who work in such NGOs correctly point out that the new legislation that is being mooted to ensure transparency is likely to be cumbersome and unwieldy with both the Defence and Foreign Ministers being required to give approval to all foreign donations.
That is a recipe for a bureaucratic quagmire where legitimate and critical activities and programs are stifled. By contrast, by declaring all their donations and more important, the sources of those donations, to the Tax Authority, any irregularities can be quickly spotted and be dealt with accordingly.
It is time for the incoming government to think creatively to defend our country’s interests against those who would harm her, and after such a divisive election campaign, start to heal the wounds of Israeli society.
David Gross is the English Spokesman of the ImTirtzu movement.