Word on the Street: A looming threat to Israeli democracy

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on January 5, 2016

2016 has opened with a direct challenge to Jewish Americans who care about Israel. As Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev wrote this week, a frontal assault on the democratic soul of the state of Israel is underway and it’s being met by deafening silence from most of the American Jewish community’s established leadership.

The latest threat is new legislation being advanced by Israel’s government that attempts to stifle dissent and undermine key groups that work on behalf of human rights.

The law in question, commonly called the NGO Bill and approved by the Israeli Cabinet in December, would impose harsh restrictions on progressive civil rights groups that receive foreign funding, going so far as to require their members to wear special badges in the Knesset to mark them as foreign agents. This legislation is now making its way through the Knesset, supported by members of the Jewish Home and Likud parties and their patrons in the settlement movement.

This bill did not come out of nowhere, and it’s not a small or isolated problem. It is part and parcel of a broader campaign being waged in Israeli society to undermine liberal democratic values, freedom of speech and those who believe that the settler dream of Greater Israel is strangling the Zionist dream of a Jewish democracy.

As the Washington Post editorialized this week, “the proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a democratic state.”

As American citizens, we’re understandably hesitant to critique legislation being advanced by Israeli lawmakers in their own country. But this legislation, along with numerous other governmental and non-governmental actions of recent months, cross a line with enormous implications for Israel’s future. Every step taken to undermine the basic democratic principles and ideals that have formed the backbone of the US-Israel relationship since 1948 poses an existential threat to the state of Israel.

As Americans and as Jews who care about Israel’s survival and its future, it’s up to us to stand up for these principles now.

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The backers of this bill claim it’s simply a requirement for transparency — but it’s not. While the bill targets progressive groups, it doesn’t apply requirements for transparency to right-wing organizations that engage in hateful incitement against fellow Israelis and who receive the majority of their funding from wealthy foreign individuals, as opposed to foreign governments. It does nothing to impede those who funnel millions into building settlement outposts in the occupied territory.

Transparency is important, but it should be true transparency, with rigid reporting requirements that show where organizations on the left — and on the right — get their funding. And the truth is, the organizations targeted by this bill already face those rigid requirements — and organizations on the right are frequently allowed to bypass them.

The organizations targeted by this bill have nothing to hide. In fact, they are bastions of openness and transparency, uncovering and reporting on the truth about human rights violations in the occupied territory and inside Israel itself.

As American Jews, we rightfully celebrate Israel’s democracy and proudly declare our commitment to defending Israel from the threats it faces. What, then, could be more important than standing up against this looming threat to Israeli democracy? When will there be a better time for all of us, and our leaders, to speak out? How long can we wait before it’s too late?

There is still time to stop this bill from becoming law. American Jews can stand with those Israelis who share our values and make clear to Israel’s government the damage this bill and the broader pattern of action to undermine democracy in Israel are doing to the most precious asset Israel has — its relationship with American Jews and the United States itself.

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