The Not So Civil Society

NGO’s, the last voice of opposition in Israel, are now under threat from anti-democratic laws


Last year saw a new front opened up in what has been described as Israel’s democratic recession. This time, it was the country’s proliferation of left-leaning non- governmental organisations that came under attack from legislation that would see such non-profits sharply curbed by limits placed on their foreign funding. Amid proposed bills that would limit the independence of the Supreme Court, ban calls to boycott goods produced in Israel or the settlements and penalise those who taught that Israel’s birth in 1948 was a ‘nakba’ or catastrophe, the danger to dovish non-profits came as a new blow to what remained of the Israeli left. Some of those particularly targeted for criticism included the New Israel Fund, B’tselem, Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. The willingness of governments — mainly in Europe and northern America — to assist and grant funding to such Israeli organisations dedicated to human rights, civil society and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has given the right another opportunity to accuse these groups of disloyalty to the state. It has also opened up fresh ways to legislate against the funding of left-wing NGOs. The original proposals to limit NGO backing have somewhat run aground amidst the controversy, but fresh ones have been put forward in their wake. These new bills would prevent governments from donating to NGOs that support, for example, Israeli officials in international courts or encourage refusal to serve in the army, while other foreign donations to NGOs would be taxed at 45% unless the non-profit was already part-funded by the government or exempted by the finance ministry.

It seems curious that NGOs have become such a sensitive issue when it could well be argued that the very foundations of the state of Israel rest upon their existence. In the nascent stages of Zionism, community-organised services went a long way to founding institutions responsible for creating the fabric of the new Jewish society. Most were financed by Jews from abroad. One of the oldest, now known as Yad-Hanadiv, was set up by the Rothschild family for settlement and industry in Palestine and amongst its other achievements can claim credit for helping to build the Knesset and Supreme Court. British Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore was another proponent of this drive, among other things financing some of the first neighbourhoods to be built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. But these were not just organisations run by rich foreign donors; many communities throughout Europe had a communal trust which financed Jews living in Palestine, not all Zionist. The ultra-Orthodox financed yeshivas and the livelihoods of their students in Jerusalem, Safed and Hebron, and their funders helped build many neighbourhoods in these cities.

From the 1920s, the Zionist movement developed a semi-governmental framework handled by
what today could be described as NGOs

Jews have always given money to fund social causes, and both the Zionist and non-Zionist communities in pre-state Palestine were very much dependent on money coming from abroad, to kick-start new communities, develop agriculture and sustain new immigrants. From the 1920s, as the Zionist movement began to consolidate itself, a semi-governmental framework began to develop, handled by what today could be described as NGOs. These institutions served as a parallel Jewish administration set apart from that run by the British Mandate. It became known as “ha-medina she’baderech” — the state on the way. The Kupat Cholim health service, for instance, was founded in 1911 by the union of agricultural workers in Yehuda, near Petach Tikva, with the idea of providing medical insurance and treatment to workers. In the late 1930s, it became a division of the Histadrut, the workers union, and by the 1940s they had established whole hospitals. Similar organisations supplied other social needs and financed the building of civilian infrastructure, planting of forests, school networks, vocational training colleges and the new Jewish universities. The British Mandate government was nominally in charge of supplying services to the local population but the Jewish community was eager to set up its own system. While some of the finance was from special taxes and fees paid by the local Jewish users, these institutions were, to a great degree, subsidised by the largesse of Jewish philanthropists from around the world, not all of them rich — many middle-class and even poor Jewish families contributed to the building of the Promised Land.

‘When the state was established, with strong socialist values, its ideological position was that a strong central government should provide services’


This trend began to change after 1948.“When the state was established, with strong socialist values, its ideological position was that a strong central government should provide services,” says Rachel Liel, the head of the New Israel Fund. Most of the functions of the Jewish Agency — which until the creation of Israel had functioned as the de facto government — were absorbed into the state, apart from aliyah and foreign fundraising. Health was channelled through the government — with the Histadrut continuing its central role as a virtual part of the government, as both were run by the Mapai party until 1977 when the sweeping victory of the Likud heralded a change in the state’s ideological framework. A number of social, financial and political developments from this period onwards changed the basic framework of Israel’s social services sector, not least the breakup of much of the financial holdings of the Histadrut which either went bankrupt or were sold off, as well as an increasing trend of privatisation and greater affluence in the economy.


This expansion is not a uniquely Israeli phenomenon, and can be seen in various forms throughout the world, as Benjamin Gidron explains in a paper for the Israel Democracy Institute entitled ‘The Israeli Third Sector: Patterns of Activity and Growth, 1980–2007’. “Globalisation processes and privatisation of public services, the weakening of governments and increased awareness on the part of certain groups and populations regarding the potential benefits of self-organising — all contribute to the third sector’s growth,” he writes. “These factors have transformed that sector into an important factor in the economy, society, and polity.” But this seems to have been taken to somewhat of an extreme in Israeli society, which now has one of the highest numbers of registered non-profit organisations in the Western world. “Slowly but surely services were delivered by the private rather than the public sector,” says Liel. “Most social services are no longer provided by the government but by a service sector. A very major part of the third sector in Israel are services — for elderly, housing, disabilities — which have contracts with the government who provide them with policy guidance, supervision and funds.” According to the latest figures available from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev Israeli Centre for Third Sector Research, there are currently over 40,000 registered third sector organisations in Israel, although only about a third of these are active. An average of 1,500 new organisations register annually, and this sector constitutes roughly 13% of the country’s GDP. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, total donations to NGOs in 2010 were estimated at 16.2 billion NIS, with about two-thirds estimated to come from foreign sources.

The NGO sector in Israel has been profoundly affected by the growing influence of ultra-Orthodox parties within the ruling coalitions. While the Haredi education networks have remained largely independent of government control, the ultra-Orthodox parties have demanded and received government funding for their schools, girls’ seminaries and yeshivas. The government grants for these are channeled through non-profit NGOs. As a result, 26% of the NGOs in Israel are dedicated to religious aims, with thousands of small operations attached to synagogues and schools, and major ones including El Ha-Maayan, the main NGO run by the Shas political party, and Tzeirei Chabad, the central NGO supporting Chabad-Lubavitch operations in Israel. 16% deal with health and social affairs, another 16% are concerned with culture and entertainment, 15% finance education and research, 12% deal with general philanthropy and the rest are dedicated to social change and development.

In many cases, it has proven easier for the government simply to hand over funding rather than work at incorporating Israel’s diverse groups

Another reason for the proliferation of NGOs in Israel is the country’s babel-like cultural diversity. Orthodox Zionist philosophy championed the melting pot but the state has had to confront the desire of various groups to retain their own particular character as well as control over their internal affairs. In many cases, it has proven easier for the government simply to hand over funding rather than work at incorporating these groups. Establishing specific NGOs ensures that special interests are taken into account. These NGOs can function like pressure or interest groups but beyond special interest groups there are also NGOs for non-minority causes such as feminism.

Women’s social change organisations, such as the veteran Israel Women’s Network lobby group and Kolech which fights for women’s rights within the religious community have made important contributions towards creating change in gender issues, especially at a time when many note a hardening of positions towards women. A right-wing government containing ultra-Orthodox parties seems unwilling to oppose an apparent trend to exclude them from public life, with attempts to segregate public buses and limit women from participating in civic and military forums.

As the Israel Women’s Network’s founder, the feminist campaigner Alice Shalvi told the Jerusalem Post, female leadership faced a particular challenge “in this male chauvinist society, in which military considerations are such a determining factor in what happens. This patriarchal and paternalistic attitude stems not only from our security situation, but also from Judaism, which is a patriarchal religion”.

The strong female presence across the NGO sector can be seen as a response to the more macho excesses of a militarised society. Many of the women’s NGOs have eschewed a hierarchical structure in favour of a collective approach.This is especially notable in groups like Machsom Watch, a movement of Israeli women, who, since 2001, have conducted daily observations of IDF checkpoints in the West Bank and along the separation fence, as well as monitoring events in the offices of the Civil Administration and in military courts. Also operating as a collective is Who Profits? a research project investigating the commercial involvement of Israeli and foreign companies with the occupation and initiated by the Coalition of Women for Peace.

Valeria Seigelshifer, who now works for the Women’s Forum For a Fair Budget, has been employed in the NGO sector since 2003. In nearly 10 years, she says, “all my bosses were women. Maybe they are more willing to listen to their employees, to other views and to share and take decisions in a more inclusive way. Opinions are taken into account; maybe it’s more democratic.” The NIF’s Liel agrees. “My feeling, cautiously, is that the NGO sector in Israel is more dominated by women employees and directors,” she says. “There is more conversation and dialogue, rather than power imposed, and more mentoring and sharing rather than hierarchy.”

‘Previously, this political left would usually take the blows, now the NGOs take the fire’

The other phenomenon in the Israeli third sector, as so acutely highlighted by last year’s attempted legislation, has been the rise of NGOs campaigning for human rights in recent years, such as Breaking the Silence, which records the testimonies of former IDF soldiers, and Yesh Din, documenting abuses in the occupied territories. This rise may be ascribed to the decline of the political left in the country, which battered by the second intifada and a general turn rightwards within society, has shrunk to near-negligible proportions. The current Knesset has just eight members of the Labour party, five members of its breakaway party Ha’atzmaut, and only three representatives from Meretz. Without a substantial opposition to reign in the excesses of the current administration, it has fallen to NGOs to raise critical voices and challenge.

“What’s unique about our situation in Israel is that human rights NGOs are being targeted as scapegoats because the political left are so weak,” says Roy Yellin, a political consultant working with many human rights organisations. “Previously, this political left would usually take the blows, but since they don’t have enough representation in the Knesset, now the NGOs take the fire.”

“In Israel major areas of concern in human rights — the occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel, for instance — are perceived as working against the interests of the state

Another aspect particular to the Israeli situation, he adds, is directed by the Jewish nature of the country. “In any other democratic, modern western country, if you were working to aid refugees or marginalised communities, you wouldn’t be seen as doing something against the state,” he said. “In Israel major areas of concern in human rights — the occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel, for instance — are perceived as working against the interests of the state. This contradicts the modern concept of nationalism — for instance, that a French citizen is French no matter their religion. In Israel, if you are working for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, you’re a traitor.”

The growth of left-wing NGOs has conversely led to a rise in oppositional non-profits. One such group — NGO Monitor — aims to uncover what it calls “the insidious motives of a range of human rights organisations”, and argues that, in terms of foreign funding, “both the amount of money given to NGOs and the quantity of these types of NGOs are not found elsewhere…there are no other cases where sovereign, democratic countries manipulate the internal political affairs and promote opposition policies in another sovereign, democratic country in this manner and to this extent,” the organisation claims.

To back up its claims, NGO Monitor published accounts sourced from the Israeli Registrar of Non- Profits, noting that groups such as Ir Amim, which campaigns over the status of Jerusalem, had received funds from the EU, the UK, Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Switzerland amounting to NIS 2.7m in 2009, 73.9% of its total donations. In the same year, Yesh Din relied on NIS 3.12m of funding from Belgium, the EU, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and Ireland — 72.4% of its total.

Another leading light in the counter-movement is Im Tirtzu, a neo-Zionist grouping which ran a notorious campaign featuring NIF board chair and former Meretz MK Naomi Chazan with a horn emerging from her head. The counter-movement has progressed single- mindedly towards its aim of marginalising those ‘disloyal’NGOs. “They are very effective at raising money and have better political strategists than our camp, as well as better co-ordination and better synchronising with government,” notes Yellin.

It is by no means certain whether the campaign against the NGOs will succeed. Netanyahu himself in November 2011 pulled the law which he had initially supported “for redrafting”, perhaps dismayed at the level of criticism from Jewish leaders abroad and senior politicians in friendly governments. British Foreign Secretary William Hague had said his country was “deeply concerned” by proposals to pass legislation to limit foreign funding. “This would have a serious impact on projects funded from the UK and elsewhere to support universal rights and values and would be seen as undermining the democratic principles the Israeli state is founded on,” he added. And Israel’s attorney- general Yehuda Weinstein warned he would be unable to defend proposed legislation in the High Court should it be approved by the Knesset, noting that they would deal “a harsh blow to a long list of constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to equality”.

‘Working for the rights of women, Israeli Arabs — this isn’t anti-Israel, this is pro-Israel’

Perhaps the ferocity of the attacks are evidence of the sector’s influence — “if something is so marginal and non-influential you don’t need to outlaw it,” notes Yellin, predicting that human rights and social justice NGOs will emerge stronger from the maelstrom. But others, including Liel, see foreign funding as essential for the survival of this sector, and the sector as essential for the survival of democracy. “Working for the rights of women, Israeli Arabs — this isn’t anti-Israel, this is pro-Israel. Those trying to frame it as anti-Israel have an agenda and need to be exposed,” she said, adding, “If a lot of this funding goes, then this sector will cease to exist. I can’t be more passionate about this — a democracy without a human rights sector is no longer a democracy.”

Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. A former Foreign Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, she writes widely on international affairs.

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1 Comment
  1. charles Plotkiin says

    I think I agree with you, and do support your fund and also Gesher. You could help some of us slow old timers read your argument if you were a bit more succinct. I kept reading for a while, then looked at how much more there was to go, admired your thoroughness but gave up on continuing the scrolling.

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