The Knesset has passed legislation setting forth new requirements for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive funding from foreign governments.
What does this bill do?
Specifically the legislation establishes requirements for any Israeli NGO that received more than 50% of its funding from foreign state entities in the previous year to:
- Report that it is a foreign-funded organisation to the State Registrar, which is required to publish a list of such organisations on its website.
- Disclose that it is foreign-funded in any reports it publishes, in letters sent to elected officials or state employees, and when its representatives register to take part in Knesset discussions.
- “Prominently” disclose that it is foreign-funded in any publicly-available publication intended to further its cause. The law specifically mentions billboards, TV and newspaper ads, websites, and “Internet campaigns” which are “widespread” or “ongoing.”
The bill will apply to donations received starting in 2017. This means that the bill is not retroactive and will apply only to contributions received after the bill has become law.
Why do foreign governments donate to Israeli NGOs?
Allied countries such as the US, Canada, United Kingdom, European countries and others often support the work of nonprofit organisations in Israel. Grants are made available based on priorities determined by the donor countries – priorities that reflect the shared vision and shared values of these democracies and Israel. These funding streams are part of a bigger picture of funding that includes support for educational institutions like Universities, scientific and academic research, hospitals, infrastructure and more.
Foreign government funding includes well-documented processes of grant-making with strict transparency and reporting requirements set forth both by the grant-making countries and by the Israeli NGO registrar.
Does this law make any new information available to the public or increase “transparency”?
No. In 2011, the Knesset enacted a law requiring NGOs to report to the State Registrar and on the NGO’s website any foreign government funding larger than 20,000 Israeli shekels. As such, information on funding by foreign-governments to Israeli NGOs has long been readily available to the public.
Does this bill target progressive or left-wing organisations? How so?
Israeli organisations advocating for human rights, peace, and shared society receive funding from governments of Israel’s allies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, European countries and the European Union because of a shared commitment to those values. Organisations that support settlements, on the other hand, receive funding from private foreign donors or from Israeli government coffers channeled through right-wing controlled ministries or local councils.
While the funding of progressive Israeli NGOs is transparent under current regulations even before the passage of this bill, the same is not true of their right-wing counterparts. A recent report by Peace Now showed that 94% of the funding to 9 prominent right-wing organisations was hidden from the public. This loophole is not addressed by the new bill; those organisations’ funding will remain concealed from the public.
Why didn’t the Knesset pass a bill that addresses this lack of transparency from right-wing groups?
Some Knesset Members took part in the debate over this bill in Knesset’s committee process – including Likud MKs – sought to expand the new bill to apply not only to funding from foreign governments but also to funding from foreign individuals. This would have provided new information to the public and increased transparency for groups that are funded by a few wealthy foreign individuals.
The attorney of the Knesset Constitution Committee summed up what happened to that proposal in a memo to Knesset Members on June 22nd: “With regard to applying the bill to private foreign funders – the text does not include this proposal because the coalition did not consent to expand this draft law in such a manner.”
The bill that passed seems watered-down. Why the fuss?
The final version of this bill is far less onerous than earlier proposals. The mobilisation of Israelis against this bill along with the repeated warnings by some of Israel’s closest allies and friends in Jewish Diaspora communities have influenced the final version.
But this legislation cannot be seen in a vacuum. It is part of a larger strategy by opponents of democratic values that includes a series of laws passed in recent years that undermine Israelis’ freedoms of expression and assembly. This strategy is still underway: additional legislation – such as the proposal to allow Knesset Members to “suspend” their colleagues – is now under discussion.
Moreover, the discussions around this bill were used by certain politicians to grandstand and to stoke anger against Israeli civil society groups. Irrespective of the specific provisions of the law, the result is a more divided Israel and a weakened civil society.