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Israeli Law Singles Out Foreign-Backed NGOs, But Backers Say 'Don't Call It Russian'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has praised the law, saying it "will strengthen Israel's democracy" by preventing “an absurd situation in which foreign states intervene in Israel’s internal affairs.”

JERUSALEM -- A law passed this week in Israel to more tightly regulate organizations receiving foreign funding has drawn angry comparisons to contentious Russian legislation -- even as Russian-speaking Israelis are among its strongest proponents.

"Vladimir Putin passed a similar law," lawmaker Eyal Ben-Reuven of the opposition Zionist Union party warned during a grueling marathon session late on July 11. "And I ask you: Is this us?"

The law requires groups receiving more than half their budget from foreign governments or agencies to note that fact on their publications -- including billboards, newspapers, and online -- and in all correspondence with civil servants. Representatives of the groups must also mention their foreign funding to the heads of parliamentary committees they participate in. Failure to comply will result in fines.

The measure will almost exclusively affect liberal groups, since right-wing organizations supportive of Israeli policy tend to get the majority of their funding from wealthy private donors.

One of the Israeli law's co-sponsors, Robert Ilatov, is one of the million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union who moved to Israel in the years after the Cold War.

Ilatov was born in what is now Uzbekistan and moved to Israel in 1985. He is a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party (Israel Is Our Home), which was founded to represent Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel.

Ilatov says the law aims to limit foreign meddling in Israeli politics.

“There is intervention which is not acceptable in the Western world in the internal affairs of Israel,” he says. “[Governments] fund the activities of public organizations that present themselves as objective groups but in fact are advancing the agendas of foreign states.”

He says such groups help efforts to unfairly blacken Israel’s name abroad.

Some of the organizations that will likely be affected say they are whistle-blowers working to end Israel’s rule over Palestinians and improve the rights of minorities in Israel.

Yehuda Shaul (center), from the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, talks to members of the European Parliament during a visit to the Palestinian village of Susya in the West Bank in February.
Yehuda Shaul (center), from the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, talks to members of the European Parliament during a visit to the Palestinian village of Susya in the West Bank in February.

“The Israeli occupation over the Palestinians in the occupied territories is not an internal Israeli matter,” says Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of military veterans dedicated to exposing improper or illegal behavior toward Palestinians. “We have millions of Palestinians living outside of Israel who are under our rule. Their rights are not an internal issue. It’s an international issue.”

Breaking the Silence gets more than half its budget from foreign governments.

Ilatov says the law passed this week was a softened version of his earlier proposal, called the Foreign Agents Law. That law would have eliminated tax deductions for organizations getting state funding from abroad. It would have required the groups to note next to their names on official correspondence that they serve as “foreign agents.”

“At this stage, I conceded in order to move the law forward,” Ilatovsays.

Other lawmakers proposed requiring representatives of the affected NGOs to wear special identification tags while in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, says earlier drafts of the Israeli law resemble Russia’s so-called Foreign Agent Law, passed in 2012. Russia’s law requires nongovernmental organizations to register with the Justice Ministry if they receive funding from abroad for “political activity.” Today more than 100 groups are considered foreign agents in Russia, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Fuchs says the softened Israeli law would likely contribute to "shaming and delegitimizing" the organizations but would not shut them down or block their activities.

"The outcome is problematic but not dramatic," he says.

Israeli sociologist Oleg Komlik studies the evolution of lawmaking and says the similarity between the Israeli and Russian legislation “is in their essence -- to close a political space.” The Israeli law has been in the works for years, Komlik adds, predating the Russian edition.

Komlik, who immigrated to Israel at age 15 from Belarus, says most Israelis of Russian-speaking descent skew to the political right. He credits this phenomenon with an ingrained tradition of obedience to authoritarianism.

“Former citizens of the Soviet Union lived for 70 years or more in a regime without rights,” Komlik says. “This problematic notion of what is a state, what is a political regime, a notion that they carried out from the Soviet legacy, remained.”

Ilatov dismisses the connection between his background and the law as "racism."

“[Critics] take me as one who was born in the former U.S.S.R. and try to label me as coming from an undemocratic state,” he says. “I think this intervention, as it is not acceptable in other democratic states, is not acceptable in Israel’s internal affairs and it doesn’t matter where I came from.”

He compares the Israeli law to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires agents lobbying on behalf of foreign governments to report their activities.

The U.S. State Department has rejected that comparison, saying that the government places no limits on foreign funding of NGOs.

Avigdor Lieberman
Avigdor Lieberman

Ilatov’s law garnered enthusiastic support from his party’s chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, who was born in Moldova and is today Israel’s defense minister. But Ilatov also worked alongside his co-sponsor, Israeli-born Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the law, saying it "will strengthen Israel's democracy" by preventing “an absurd situation in which foreign states intervene in Israel’s internal affairs.”

Russia’s foreign-agent law had a chilling effect on its civil society, according to Mikhail Kaluzhsky, a former theater director in Moscow’s Sakharov Center, devoted to the history of dissidents in the former U.S.S.R. Kaluzhky says the center was labeled a foreign agent, which dried up its foreign funding and triggered several fines. In 2014, Kaluzhky resigned his post and immigrated to Israel, where he has family. He has since moved to Germany but says he noticed worrying parallels in Israeli society to the country he left behind.

In addition to the law targeting foreign-funded organizations, Israel’s culture minister has also attempted to defund or close down venues that hold plays and film festivals that challenge Israeli policy.

“The possible developments are scarily similar to what we find in Russia,” Kaluzhky says, although he adds that in comparison to Russia, “in Israel, the situation is much more open and flexible.”

For now, foreign-funded groups in Israel have vowed to continue their work. The antisettlement group Peace Now has announced it will challenge the legislation in Israel’s Supreme Court.

A spokeswoman for Btselem, a group that documents what it says are Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, says it would be a mistake to assume that she was advancing a foreign agenda via funding from abroad.

“We’re working against the occupation because the occupation is an outrage -- legally and morally,” says Sarit Michaeli. “And we’re working also to protect the moral fiber of our own society.”