When it comes to the tiny State of Israel, there is no shortage of controversial news topics. The newest debate concerns the Government Transparency Bill, which would necessitate Non-Governmental Organizations that receive most of their financial backing from “foreign political entities” to declare that funding and detail it every time they put out a report or speak with a public official. It does not place any restrictions on the activities that these groups do, and it is comparable to the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the US, which stipulates that agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” reveal their relationship with the foreign government and information about related activities and finances. Nevertheless, opponents claim that it is a harbinger of dictatorship that stifles freedom of speech.
This bill was introduced in response to the recent popular uproar regarding politically far-left organizations such as Breaking the Silence (BtS). According to its mission statement, BtS “collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifada,” claiming that the “testimonies portray a…grim picture of questionable orders in many areas regarding Palestinian civilians [which] demonstrate the depth of corruption which is spreading in the Israeli military…Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that which happens in its name.”
According to NGO Monitor, BtS has been receiving direct and indirect funding from various European governments for many years. In 2014, 61% of BtS’s annual budget was from European governments. In December 2015, following inquiries from NGO Monitor, the EU disclosed that it was providing an additional €236,000 (about 1 million NIS) to BtS in 2015-2017, under a project titled “Educating for Change: Human Rights Education in Israeli Society.”
BtS’s funding from governments such as Sweden, Switzerland and Norway, which are borderline-hostile to Israel, distances BtS from the label of a Human Rights Organization and closer to the category of a puppet group used by anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist entities to isolate Israel. BtS claims that the organization addresses Israeli society in order to foster improvement in the IDF. Despite this claim, BtS’s lobbying and media advocacy focus on international audiences, including presentations in Europe and the United States. In these presentations, the primary objective is promoting war crime charges against Israel. These charges are based on anonymous and unverifiable hearsay “testimonies.” The reliability of these testimonies has been called into further question by another report from NGO Monitor that, following the 2009 Gaza conflict, several BtS donors conditioned the transfer of money to the group on its ability to gather a minimum number of incriminating “testimonies” against the Israeli army. When an NGO’s policies involving the demonization of a country reflects those of beat cops desperately attempting to meet their speeding ticket quotas, some would say it is the government’s duty to step it and protect its sovereignty.
Ultimately, the argument surrounding the Government Transparency Bill is a dispute regarding the degree to which the State of Israel can enforce its sovereignty. When foreign governments fund organizations that explicitly attempt to undermine the policies of a sitting government, that government has a right to take action and monitor such activities. Even those in the far-left of the political spectrum, such as Amos Harel of Ha’aretz, admit that “Breaking the Silence…has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a ‘human rights organization.’ Any organization whose website includes the claim by members to expose the ‘corruption which permeates the military system’ is not a neutral observer. The organization has a clear agenda: to expose the consequences of IDF troops serving in the West Bank and Gaza. This seems more of interest to its members than seeking justice for specific injustices.”
Those familiar with Israeli politics are familiar with rarity of consensus on any topic by all sides of the political system. The fact that such unanimity has been achieved against BtS is the final indicator of its toxicity in Israeli society. The Government Transparency Bill is an appropriate and rightful step by the Israeli government to protect its sovereignty and not allow foreign bodies to undermine it under the guise of free speech and human rights.