Peretz, the NIF and funding transparency


This week, we featured two stories and an op-ed on a proposal in the Knesset to investigate the funding non-governmental groups monitoring human rights.

I wrote the story about how discomfited some U.S. Jewish groups are by such inquries, Leslie Susser covered the to-and-fro in Israel, and NGO monitor, which watches the watchdogs, explained why it believed the Knesset initiative, pushed primarily by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, was ill-conceived.

Clarity would help as this goes forward. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of it in the latest salvo on the matter, from Marty Peretz at the New Republic:

Lieberman’s party is now pushing a measure in the Knesset to have a parliamentary inquiry into the foreign financial support received by organizations he doesn’t like or trust. And the truth is that I don’t like most of them myself. The New Israel Fund, for example, which – aside from backing some environmental groups and civil liberties agencies including those which fight against sexual bigotry- finances movements that support the boycott of Israel. Whether I like them or not is hardly the matter.  Or, for that matter, whether Lieberman likes them or not. The question is whether there should be transparency in the political order or not. Lieberman’s motivations aside, I believe there should be. Just like in the United States.

–The NIF suffered a bout of wishy-washiness last year on the boycott question, not wanting to cut off organizations that might employ a staffer or be led by an officer who signed a boycott petition at one point or another. It finally got its act together, though, and as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg — who had been putting NIF’s feet to the fire on this issue — noted, it’s as close to unequivocal as statements-by-committee get:

The NIF opposes the global BDS movement, views the use of these tactics as ineffective and counterproductive and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel.

NIF will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs.

That clearly contradicts "finances movements that support the boycott of Israel" and unless Peretz has evidence to the contrary, it’s an unfair slur.

–The NIF is fully transparent. It does not take foreign government funding. Many of the groups it funds — also transparent — do take foreign funding, in addition to NIF funding.

They are, however, transparent about this, raising the question of what exactly this Knesset committee would do. A fully-salaried staffer for a Knesset inquiry into foreign funding for local NGOs would likely spend 30 minutes a work day on Internet searches and 7.5 hours negotiating with Berdugo Contractors over the addition to the kids’ bedroom. It took me 20 seconds to find out that B’tselem gets foreign funding by clicking on the tab called "List of Donors" on its website.

NGO Monitor’s point is whether these donors are themselves kosher — it notes in its op-ed, for instance, that ICCO, an agency affiliated with the Netherlands government, funds Electronic Intifada, which backs BDS. It also funds B’Tselem.

The question here, then, is one of the propriety of remove: There’s one remove from the source: How relevant is EI’s posture to B’Tselem’s decision to take money, not from EI, but from an agency that also funds EI? And two removes from the source: How relevant is it to NIF that an agency it funds takes money from another agency that funds EI?

Should ICCO’s EI funding make it treif for B’tselem? Should NGOs that take ICCO money become treif for NIF donations? That would be fodder for an informed debate. (Notably, as NGO Monitor reports, the Dutch government appears to be checking into ICCO’s funding practices.)

One guide may be the morality of primary, secondary and tertiary boycotts. The Western consensus  — arising in no small part out of considerations of the Arab League boycott of Israel — is that an entity may boycott whatever and whomever it likes, but that it may not blackmail other entities into similar boycotts. Primary boycott — okay. Secondary and tertiary — not okay, or legal for that matter.

It would probably not be so clearcut in the matter of NGO funding. An Israeli NGO would be hardpressed to take money from a group that funds neo-Nazis without answering some questions — that’s one extreme. Is that standard applicable to a group that funds a Palestinian advocacy organization that backs Israel boycotts? Like I said, that would be a debate — and an interesting one.

–Peretz, finally, repeats a trope I keep hearing: What right does one government have to investigate the activities of another? When I point out to others who have posited this argument that without this "right" we would not have the Helsinki Commissions and all the good work they did in bringing about the release of Jews from the former Soviet Union, I’m asked: Well, okay, but what right does one democracy have to investigate another?

The answer to this is that Helsinki commissions, which are comprised of lawmakers, are still active, and still touring democracies. Check the  most recent statements of the U.S. commission, under the current chairmanship of  Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.):They address concerns in Russia (nominal democracy) and Romania and the Balkans (real democracies.) Then there are the annual State Department human rights reports, which are less prone than Cardin’s commission to draw conclusions — but which amount to U.S. government-funded human rights monitoring of allies and democracies, including Israel. Should this be done away with? What about the the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom which has made its emphasis in recent years the rights of religious minorities in Muslim lands?

The question of the propriety of one democracy checking another’s human rights record is so bogus, that I’m led to wonder if I’m missing something. I’ve tried to figure this out:

Perhaps it’s that Helsinki-type investigations are, at least, clearly associated with governments, while directing government funding to local NGOs is somehow sneaky or nefarious. But how, if the local NGO is transparent about the funding? I keep hearing intimations that NGOs that accept foreign money are somehow agents for the funding countries, and should register as such — much like foreign lobbies do in DC. But B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are not lobbies. What concrete — i.e., fiduciary — interests of the Dutch or Swedish or Norwegian governments are furthered by their activities?

Not only that, but here again — the United States does precisely the same thing. Here’s a State Department call-out for groups to apply for money for Internet Freedom Programs, and the targeted list encompasses areas that include democracies. Applicants must be U.S. non-profits (It’s not hard for indigenous groups to organize "friends" in the United States) and must also "Have existing, or the capacity to develop, active partnerships with organization(s) in the target country and/or region."

How is this different? Again, it took me about 30 seconds to find just one example.

Finally, there is the rebuke in Peretz’ hedder: "Europe is not entitled to hector any country." This is the glass houses argument. Peretz outlines European issues with human rights, citing Spain and its Basque and Catalan minorities.

That’s a question for diplomats, and inimical to the proprieties of legal inquiries. Moreoever, if Israel were to adopt this posture, it might uncomfortably resemble the forced guffawing typified recently when Russia (where journalists are murdered and disappeared) mocked the United States (where journalists are free to blog to their hearts’ content) for pursuing the leakers in the Wikileaks case. Not in degree, to be sure — Israel is not Russia — but in the resort to cynical "Nuts to you" non-sequiturs. ("Funding NGOs, huh? Well then, what about … Barcelona! Yeah, Barcelona! I hear they speak Catalan in Barcelona!")

Is that where we want to be?

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