Proposal to crack down on leftist groups puts scathing heat on Israel

jerusalem  |  Controversial Knesset legislation has sparked a fierce argument over who is doing more to hurt Israel’s reputation: Human rights organizations critical of the Israeli government and army — or the politicians who want to investigate them for allegedly going too far.

Avigdor Lieberman

By an overwhelming vote of 47-16, the Knesset last week gave preliminary passage to proposed legislation calling for the establishment of a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding and activities of a long list of left-leaning human rights groups.

One of the co-sponsors, Faina Kirshenbaum of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, charges that these groups are working under the guise of human rights advocacy to discredit the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in the West Bank, criminalize its soldiers and encourage draft-dodging — with the overall aim of weakening the IDF and delegitimizing Israel.

“These groups provided material to the Goldstone commission and are behind indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world,” she declared during a Knesset debate, referring to the U.N.-endorsed Goldstone report on the Gaza war, whose findings included allegations of war crimes violations by Israel.

After days of criticism for the “undemocratic” nature of the proposed investigatory committee, Lieberman invited cameras into the normally closed party caucus meeting Jan. 11 to show he had no intention of backing down.

In his remarks, he suggested that Israel’s delegitimizers rely on the subversive work of Israel’s Ha’aretz daily newspaper, as well as Yesh Din, a group that monitors the rule of law in the West Bank, and Yesh Gvul, an organization that defends Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank. He called the organizations “collaborators in terror.”

“There wasn’t a single meeting abroad where I spoke about delegitimization of Israel and people didn’t say look at what Ha’aretz wrote or what Yesh Din [and] Yesh Gvul” published, he said.

Critics — from both the left and right wings — have accused Lieberman of McCarthyism. They argue that setting up a parliamentary mechanism to hound political opponents is patently undemocratic and brings to mind the witch-hunting days of anti-Communist fervor in the United States in the early 1950s.

“The Knesset’s action [last week] contravenes the democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Israel’s vibrant democracy not only can survive criticism, but it also thrives and is improved by it.”

Critics maintain that Israeli law already requires full transparency on funding, that most of the named NGOs are fully transparent and there is a registrar of NGOs where funding information already is in the public domain.

As for activities such as pointing out transgressions by IDF soldiers, opponents of the proposed law contend that such criticism illustrates the strength of Israeli democracy.

The proposed law is “more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to proclaim the ‘death of Israeli democracy,’ further contributing to Israel’s isolation,” writes Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, an organization often harshly critical of left-leaning Israeli human rights groups.

Several of the groups singled out monitor IDF activities in the West Bank. Those groups say this is precisely what the role of civil society groups should be: ensuring that the occupation is as humane as possible. If their funding or activities contravene the law in any way, they should be dealt with by the police, not a politically weighted Knesset committee, they insist.

“The recent initiative undermines Israel’s place in the global community and is a source of concern to the Jewish community throughout the world and to Israel’s friends everywhere,” said a statement issued in the United States by the Union for Reform Judaism.

In Israel, several Likud leaders said they, too, were appalled at Lieberman’s approach.

“It’s a mistake to establish a parliamentary committee in which Knesset members will interrogate their opponents,” Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister, told Israel’s Channel 2. “It will turn our country into something it never was or ought to be.”

Of course, not everyone is critical of the legislation. The Zionist Organization of America issued a statement lauding further scrutiny of human rights groups operating in Israel.

“These groups have also shown clearly by their actions that despite their protestations of seeking to serve Israel democracy, they actually seek to bypass Israeli democratic institutions and the Israeli public square by pressing for international pressure on Israel and its democratically elected government by corrupt, dictatorship-dominated bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council,” ZOA said in its statement.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America quoted Im Tirtzu, an Israeli group that opposes human rights groups, as saying the main issue is the foreign funding of such groups, many of which are Israeli.

“The organizations that call themselves human rights groups actually belong to the extreme left and seek to force their radical values on others through foreign funding,”  the Im Tirtzu statement said.

The targeted leftist groups say the claim of foreign funding is a red herring, noting that the bill does not pretend to examine groups that receive foreign funding but that back government policies. In any case, the targeted groups say, they are transparent about their funding.

Pundits are warning of a vicious circle: Threatened by a highly focused international campaign of delegitimization, they see Israel turning on itself, with figures such as Leiberman attacking Israeli human rights organizations, thereby laying it open to further delegitimizing attacks.

Knesset member Yisrael Hasson said Lieberman is a “foreign policy pyromaniac” with license from an “irresponsible” prime minister to start fires all over the place.

What makes this particularly dangerous, Hasson said, is that it comes in the context of the campaign to delegitimize Israel: The fires Lieberman starts can turn people who are neutral on Israel into opponents, fueling the campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel.

Ron Kampeas
of JTA contributed to this report.