“Democracy” is just a word if it isn’t given real meaning in the actions of those who live by it. One sign of a healthy democracy is its willingness to tolerate and encourage a robust nongovernmental sector, even when the representatives of that sector are critical — even harshly so — of the powers that be.
The proponents of an amendment to Israel’s law overseeing the activities of nongovernmental organizations feel these principles of democracy are at odds with Israel’s ability to protect itself from “repeated attempts to undermine its very legitimacy,” as its justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, wrote last week. Shaked champions the NGO amendment on the grounds that foreign governments are funding Israeli NGOs in an effort “to weaken Israel’s hold [on] the land of Israel.” The law would demand more “transparency” by NGOs when it comes to their foreign funding.
However, since NGOs are already required to disclose their funding sources, the law has struck critics as a targeted attack on left-wing NGOs, meant only to silence and discredit them (right-wing groups, whose considerable outside funding comes largely from private individuals, would not be affected by the law). The one-sided and seemingly redundant nature of the amendment has alienated many of Israel’s friends, who think it has more to lose from a blunt and anti-democratic law than it does from critics of its settlement or security policies.
The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, two reliable bellwethers of mainstream pro-Israel opinion, have joined those who feel the amendment is unnecessary and detrimental. “There is no doubt that many Israelis today feel beleaguered, both by the security situation and the campaign to undermine the Jewish state’s legitimacy,” writes Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO. “However, efforts to counter such campaigns through the tarring of NGOs and those holding certain political perspectives threaten to erode Israel’s very democratic character, and could significantly harm Israel’s international legitimacy.”
Israel has earned the right to boast that it is the Middle East’s only true democracy. And with that boast comes the sometimes uncomfortable responsibility to defend the right of others to express objectionable ideas. Meanwhile, Israel doesn’t lack for outside critics. It doesn’t need to give them any more ammunition.