Seeing through the transparency bill

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Under a bill introduced by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party and approved by the Israeli Cabinet on Dec. 27, new rules are going to be imposed on Israeli nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive funding support from foreign governments.

According to supporters, the Shaked bill is a “transparency bill” designed to expose foreign involvement and influence in Israeli groups. Indeed, according to the Zionist Organization of America (itself a “foreign” group), the legislation is necessary because “foreign governments’ infusions of millions of dollars and euros into hostile-to-Israel NGOs are extremely insidious.” But opponents charge that the bill is aimed at intimidating and silencing progressive Israeli nonprofit organizations, which tend to support the current governing coalition’s political opposition.

Should the Shaked bill be approved by the Knesset, significant intimidation of opposition forces will almost certainly follow. Under the bill, NGOs will be required to disclose details about their foreign funding in any communication they have with elected officials. Even worse, the bill will require NGO members to wear special identifying badges when in the Knesset, essentially branding affected nonprofits and their workers as agents of foreign governments.

Is such a law really necessary? Israel already has a transparency law that requires NGOs to disclose any foreign funding in their quarterly reports and on their websites, and that information is fully available to the public. But if there is value and purpose in full disclosure of foreign funding for Israeli NGOs, why limit that disclosure to foreign government funding? Why not also require the full disclosure of NGO funding by foreign individuals? That would include public disclosure of the millions of dollars from foundations and  individuals that are permitted to flow in secret to right-wing Israeli nonprofits. If the Shaked bill becomes law, no such disclosure of private funding would be required.

While touted as a “transparency bill,” the proposed law is hardly universal in its reach. It seeks to shine sunlight on only one corner of Israeli society — the corner that sits in the opposition. The labeling of opposition groups as anti-Israel and deserving of censure is bad policy. And the Shaked bill is bad law.

Nothing good can come of a law that is unbalanced, overtly partisan and seeks to punish the dissenting minority. That said, early indications are that the Shaked bill will pass in the Knesset, albeit with some softening or modifications.

In moving forward with this dangerous precedent, the governing coalition would be wise to remember that today’s minority could well be tomorrow’s majority. And the value of sunlight and transparency may appear to be a lot different when the focus of the effort changes to victimization of rightist NGOs.

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