Watching the debate, both in Israel and elsewhere, surrounding the proposed new NGO (Non-Government Organisation) laws in the Knesset, it is hard not to be struck by the hyperbole being employed. Some Israelis, primarily from the political left, are railing about “threats to the very foundation of Israel’s democracy” whereas others, mainly on the right, are decrying the “diplomatic warfare being waged by foreign governments against Israel”. Looking past this rhetoric, however, the two proposed laws as discussed below are neither revolutionary nor unreasonable. In fact, they are in many ways following the example of other democratic countries, Australia included.
To understand what is really going on, a good place to start would be with the actual proposed legislation, even though it is likely to be changed substantially if it ever actually passes (reports from Israel say it has been put on hold by the government for the time being). A translation of the bill being introduced by Likudniks Ofir Akunis and Tzipi Hotovely reveals that the laws essentially aim to create a new class of association, known as a “non profit political society” – any association “whose goals include an attempt to impact the State of Israel’s political and security agenda, or one that holds activities of political nature.” The effect of the legislation would be that no such association could receive more than 20,000 NIS (A$5,400) in annual donations from foreign governments.
An alternative piece of legislation being proposed by Yisrael Beitenu MK Fania Kirschenbaum would impose a 45% tax on donations by foreign governments to Israeli NGOs.
On the face of it, the bills’ very purpose goes a long way towards justifying it. When an organisation is primarily funded not by private donations, but by foreign governments, it is questionable whether the term “non-government organisation” can even be applied to it. When this organisation then works tirelessly to influence the government policy of the country that it operates in, this becomes even more problematic. And yet Israel hosts dozens of NGOs who subsist on foreign funds and exist solely to attack Israel’s policies, and sometimes its existence, many with a track record of spreading distortions and misinformation.
Just one example is the so-called “Alternative Information Centre”, an organisation which receives over 75% of its money from foreign governments and exists solely to “disseminate information” and advocate for its agenda. To illustrate this agenda, its Director once said that, “one has to unequivocally reject the very idea of a Jewish state, whatever will be its borders.” Permitting governments in Europe to pay for political organisations within Israel which call for Israel’s destruction can hardly be considered a requirement for democracy.
Moreover, Israel is not the only country that is concerned with foreign money influencing the domestic political agenda. The US has had a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in place since 1938 which strongly restricts the ability of foreign governments to fund any political advocacy in the US. Canada has similar laws. And it may come as a surprise to most readers to learn that the Australian Government is currently debating a piece of legislation that is similar to, but in certain respects harsher than, the Israeli Bills.
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010 has passed through its final reading in the House and, as of writing this article, is currently before the Senate. This Bill would prevent any donations of “foreign property” worth over $10,000 from being given for the purposes of “political expenditure”. This would mean that any individual person or organisation would not be able to receive money or property from overseas to use for “the public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means”.
In many ways, even if the laws pass, Israelis will still be far freer in this regard than Australians. In Israel, the proposals will still allow these political organisations to qualify as tax exempt; restrictions apply to donations from foreign governments only. In contrast, Australian law explicitly forbids any organisation that exists for “political or lobbying purposes” from being tax exempt. In fact, it was long assumed that no organisation could operate politically and still be considered a “charity”, as required for tax exemption, up until a High Court of Australia decision in June 2010.
Even now, there is still a strict test whereby an organisation’s purposes must contribute to the pubic welfare and cannot undermine the current system of law. Many of the NGOs that will be affected by the Israeli legislation would be unlikely to pass this Australian test – some are explicitly opposed not only to the current system of law, but to the existence of the state itself.
It is easy to lose perspective in a country like Israel, where discourse tends to be very heated. However the fact that these condemnations concern laws that are less harsh in some respects than Australia’s, and deal with a more significant problem, ought to speak for itself. A very vibrant debate is going on in Israel around this legislation as it is fiercely argued over in the Knesset and the media; and it is almost certainly not going to pass in the precise form in which it was proposed, if at all. Surely this is not the hallmark of authoritarianism, but rather of a strong democracy.