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New Israeli “Transparency” Bill Chills Dissent

By Dan Futterman

Ayelet Shaked, Israel's new Justice Minister of the far-right Jewish Home party, speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem May 17, 2015. Shaked said on Sunday she would seek a new balance that would rein in the powers of the Supreme Court over parliament and the government, a policy critics fear would restrict judicial oversight. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/PoolThis week, the U.S. embassy in Israel took the extraordinary step of issuing a public statement warning Israel’s leaders to protect freedom of speech in Israel. “Governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard,” the statement read. This unprecedented rebuke followed a meeting with United States Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in which he made clear to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked that her oft repeated claims that her Government Transparency Law is based on American legislation regarding lobbyists working for foreign governments, are simply not true, that there is no American legislation that parallels Shaked’s bill.

Last week Shaked showed how little she thinks of the intelligence of American Jewish readers, when she published an op-ed in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, comparing her law to “the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which requires non-diplomat representing foreign interests to register with the Department of Justice,” and today applies to lobbyists hired by foreign governments to press their employers’ interests.

The differences should be obvious, but Shaked is counting on the atmosphere of fear and anxiety due to the ongoing terror attacks in Israel to prevent Israelis and American Jewish supporters from asking too many questions.

Shaked’s bill is meant to apply to Israeli non-profit organizations, to force any NGO which receives more than half of its funding from a foreign government foundation to identify itself as such in the Knesset. In essence, Shaked is trying to force representatives of human rights non-profit organizations to label themselves as “foreign agents” when they appear at the Knesset in order to undermine their messages before they even open their mouths.

Of course, the human rights and Arab-led NGOs under attack represent Israeli interests, not foreign interests, but Israel’s Justice Minister doesn’t like their politics, because they expose the abuses of the Occupation and the settlement movement, and the inequality suffered by Palestinian citizens of Israel. The law was formulated to apply almost exclusively to human rights organizations or organizations led by Israeli Arabs, but not to Jewish right wing or settler organizations.

As a foundation executive, I can tell you that non-profit organizations seek funding from any legal and legitimate source that aligns with their organization’s core values. When an NGO receives a grant from a foreign government foundation, the NGO does not agree to do that government’s bidding but quite the opposite; that foreign government funding helps the NGO fulfills the NGO’s own mission, a mission which is publicly stated and registered at Israel’s Registrar of NGOs, and available for anyone to see. Such funding is provided by the American government, by many European governments, and by the European Union, and if it goes disproportionately to civil and human rights organizations or to Arab communities in Israel, it is because these arenas are chronically under-funded.

The claim that the law is needed for transparency, is also a lie. By Israeli law, all registered non-profit organizations already make public a list of their funders, and most of them include such lists on their websites. In other words, there is already full transparency, and information on funding sources is readily accessible.

Ambassador Shapiro isn’t falling for it, and the American government does not like it when Israeli ministers lie about American law. Shapiro’s not alone. His colleagues from the United Kingdom, France, Holland, Germany and the European Union – Israel’s strongest and most important allies – have all conveyed their dismay at what they perceive as an attack on Israeli democracy, so why is Shaked moving forward?

The law is a scare tactic, to put human rights organizations on the defensive, and to take advantage of Israel’s most extreme right wing government in history to try to undermine the legitimacy of critics of the Occupation.

So, is freedom of speech really under threat in Israel? We have a free press, vigorous debate in op-ed columns and on television, and the right to demonstrate. But we also have unprecedented efforts to demonize anyone who doesn’t tow the government’s pro-settlement line, to force activists to spend defending their right to speak instead of exposing the damage to Israel caused by the Occupation, and to create a chilling effect to reduce dissent from anyone not already strongly identified with the left.

While this is hardly the main point, Shaked’s opens her op-ed with what she thinks is an endorsement of her position by quoting the line, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” from the Robert Frost poem, Mending Walls. But her attempt to appeal to American Jewish ears are as disingenuous as her justification of her bill; Frost’s point is that good fences make bad neighbors, are, in fact, entirely unnecessary and do damage to society. Shaked’s bill is similarly superfluous and destructive.

Now that Minister Shaked has tried to fool American Jews into supporting her, it’s time for American Jews to join the U.S. Ambassador, and speak out against this dangerous and unnecessary law, and any further attempts to limit democratic discourse in Israel.

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