Left-wing Canadian Zionist groups decry Israeli ‘NGO bill’

Ayelet Shaked
Ayelet Shaked

Left-wing Canadian Zionist groups are adding their voices to the outcry against controversial proposed Israeli legislation that would force NGOs to disclose if more than half their funding comes from foreign sources.

The so-called “NGO bill” was proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the nationalist Jewish Home party and was unanimously approved at the end of December by the Knesset’s ministerial committee for legislation. It would require any Israeli non-governmental organization that receives more than half of its funding from foreign governments to disclose this fact in written communications with elected officials, declare it when meeting in places public officials gather, and indicate it – in the form of badges worn by its representatives – when attending sessions in the Knesset.

Groups such as JSpace Canada, the New Israel Fund of Canada and Canadian Friends of Peace Now have expressed deep concern over the cabinet-endorsed bill, which critics in Israel and abroad say is an attempt by the Israeli government to target left-wing NGOs.

“The bill appears to be so blatantly discriminatory in terms of singling out only NGOs that are critical of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s policies that it flies in the face of equality and social justice,” said Karen Mock, a founder of JSpace, as well as a human rights consultant and former national director of the League of Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada.

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Opposition politicians and activists argue that left-wing NGOs in the country such as Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and Breaking the Silence – a group comprising former Israeli soldiers that documents alleged IDF abuses in the West Bank – would be unfairly isolated by the bill, since almost all that would be affected identify with the political left. These groups often receive funding from European governments or the European Union, while right-wing NGOs in the country are often funded by private donors. The bill would demand disclosure from groups funded by foreign governments, but not those funded by individuals living abroad.

“It looks like they’re trying to not be so obviously discriminatory by wording [the bill] so that it appears to apply to all NGOs. But if only one category of NGOs fits that description, then it’s systematically biased, and it means they’ve figured out a loophole to try to cut off some legitimate organizations and lobbyists at the knees,” Mock said.

Supporters of the bill say NGOs funded by European governments use human rights as a screen to interfere in internal Israeli matters.

The bill was lauded in an email bulletin sent out by Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in Toronto.

“Israel’s democratic nature has been taken advantage of over many years by numerous internal and external NGOs undermining Israel’s security interests,” Benlolo said.

He added: “In no way does [the bill] prevent the activities of those NGOs, nor does it impose any restriction on their activities or forms of expression… [It] will provide a duty of disclosure to anyone working to lobby or influence Israeli parliamentarians on behalf of a foreign entity.”

Benlolo did not respond to several attempts by The CJN for further comment.

Issie Lyon, head of the Toronto chapter of Canadian Friends of Peace Now, said the bill would set a “bad precedent.”

He argued that a number of pro-settler projects in Israel get significant funding from private Jewish donors in the United States, and the bill would “stigmatize a good proportion of the Israeli population that’s working for social justice and conveniently allows funds coming from U.S. evangelical groups and wealthy, right-wing U.S. groups and people like [U.S. casino magnate and philanthropist] Sheldon Adelson to support their groups in Israel without having to wear this badge…

“The government is saying that certain thoughts aren’t acceptable and is creating a chill in Israel in terms of what is acceptable discourse around what Israel should do regarding social justice, security and peace.”

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A spokesperson for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said his group is reluctant to comment on the bill, given that it has not yet passed in the Knesset.

“We’re not going to speak about it publicly until we see where the legislation goes. CIJA prefers to take a wait-and-see approach. I know that it’s a divisive issue within the community, and we hope that whatever comes out will be more unifying than divisive and consistent with Israeli democracy,” he said.

Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University whose research areas include Middle East politics and security and development in conflict-affected states, said the proposed law is counterproductive for Israeli democracy.

“The legislation seems designed to make it more difficult for human rights groups and others to raise legitimate criticism of current government policy,” he said.

“It’s also telling that the legislation does not address the very much larger amounts of overseas donations that go to support settler causes, certain media outlets… and even politicians and political parties.”