If there’s one thing that infuriates me about Israeli leftists, it’s that they spend so much time howling about nonexistent threats to Israeli democracy that they have no credibility left when they actually warn about real ones. Two controversial legislative initiatives of the past week–one a genuine problem and one a manufactured one–exemplify the problem.
The manufactured crisis, which has the entire left in an uproar, begins with the fact that the Judicial Appointments Committee is reportedly deadlocked over the choice of new justices to fill the four Supreme Court vacancies that will open next year. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has strongly implied that, if this impasse isn’t resolved, she will back another legislator’s bill to change the appointments system. The current system requires Supreme Court appointments to be approved by at least seven of the appointments committee’s nine members, while the bill would allow such appointments to be approved by a simple majority of 5-4.
According to liberals, this proposal is massively undemocratic. Leftist MK Shelly Yacimovich, for instance, accused Shaked of “unruly and destructive behavior … toward the justice system.” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused the bill’s proponents of seeking to purge “the judiciary, the media, all criticism and fair democratic processes.” A Haaretz editorial termed the proposal “another step in the trampling of the proper balance among the branches of government” and an effort to undermine the court’s ability to protect “human rights and fundamental democratic principles.” And Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, who accused Shaked of putting “a gun on the table,” announced that she and her two judicial colleagues on the appointments committee will henceforth boycott negotiations aimed at trying to end the impasse.
But here’s the incredible thing: The simple-majority system that the bill proposes was, in fact, the one in place for more than five decades. The law was amended eight years ago to require a majority of at least 7-2 for Supreme Court appointments. In other words, what the left considered a perfectly appropriate and democratic system for all the years until 2008 is suddenly a major threat to democracy.
If you actually believe the simple-majority system is undemocratic, it would mean that every Supreme Court until 2008 was appointed via an undemocratic and illegitimate process, and therefore, none of its rulings should be considered valid. In addition, since many current justices–including Naor and both her colleagues on the appointments committee–were appointed prior to 2008, they too would be illegitimate, undemocratic appointees, so all current Supreme Court rulings would also be illegitimate and invalid. Is that what the left, the court’s self-proclaimed champion, actually wants?
Moreover, legislation gets repealed all the time when it turns out that what seemed like a good idea in theory doesn’t work in practice. In this case, Shaked’s argument is that the new system has created a deadlock that’s preventing the vitally needed appointment of four new justices–more than a quarter of the 15-justice court. That’s at least arguably a serious enough problem to justify a legislative remedy. Or is the left suggesting that legislation, once passed, must remain on the books in perpetuity, even if it proves detrimental?
As it happens, I think Shaked is wrong on the merits. The amendment was sponsored in 2008 by her fellow conservative, Gideon Sa’ar, for two reasons. First, it’s simply more appropriate for Supreme Court justices to be appointed with wide support than by a narrow majority. Second, the bill’s main purpose was actually to protect conservative interests: Given the composition of the appointments committee, which consists of four politicians, two Bar Association representatives and three sitting justices, conservatives are in the minority on the panel far more often than they’re in the majority. That’s because the three justices are almost always liberals (in the sense of favoring judicial activism), while the other six seats float. Requiring a seven-vote majority thus made it much harder to appoint ultraliberal candidates during times when liberals were in the majority. And neither of these reasons has lost its validity just because conservatives now hold a temporary majority on the panel.
But the fact that I disagree with something doesn’t make it undemocratic–a basic truth that most Israeli leftists unfortunately have yet to grasp. They have a nasty habit of deeming any proposal they dislike “anti-democratic.” And in this case, as with the vast majority of what they deem “anti-democratic,” nothing could be further from reality.
The problem is that once in a great while, they’re actually right–as is the case with another bill that hit the headlines over the past week. That bill, sponsored by the government, would expand the defense minister’s powers to impose movement restrictions and other restrictions on Israeli citizens whom he deems a threat to national security or the public welfare. It’s an appalling idea (though I suspect it ultimately won’t pass), and leftists are fully justified in raising a storm about it. I only wish conservatives were doing the same.
But after years of ranting about nonexistent threats to democracy like the Shaked proposal, leftists have destroyed their credibility, with the result that most Israelis simply tune them out. It’s the old problem of the boy who cried wolf: Raise false alarms often enough and no one will believe you when a real one comes.
Israel thereby loses out twice over: Leftists tarnish its image overseas by repeatedly making false claims of anti-democratic legislation, while also destroying their ability to raise justified alarms about the occasional real problems. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. And it’s precisely why Israel desperately needs a sane, responsible left rather than the one it has.
Originally published in Commentary on November 6, 2016
The ban on wearing burkinis at the beach, which was recently enacted by some 30 French municipalities and even won support from French Prime Minister Manual Valls, was rightly deemed an unconstitutional infringement on several fundamental liberties by France’s highest court this weekend. Yet the French controversy highlights something about Israel that is too often overlooked: the degree to which being a Jewish state, far from undermining Israel’s democracy, actually reinforces it.
The burkini ban was enacted in explicit reaction to Islamist terror attacks in France and the concerns they have raised about the integration of the country’s Muslim minority. As Christian Estrosi, the deputy mayor of Nice, told the New York Times, these full-body swimsuits, worn mainly by religious Muslims, constitute “unacceptable provocations in the very particular context that our city is familiar with,” referring to a July 14 terror attack that killed 86 people.
Yet Israel has suffered far worse Islamist terror and over a far longer period of time. Terror attacks in France have killed 234 people over the last 18 months, according to one British newspaper’s tally. That is just over half the 452 Israelis killed by terror during the single worst year of the second intifada (2002). And since France’s population is 7.6 times the size of Israel’s, that means that as a proportion of the population, Israel’s losses during that one year–without even mentioning all its losses to terrorism in other years–were almost 15 times as large as France’s have been over the past 18 months.
Moreover, as a proportion of the total population, Israel’s Muslim community is much larger than that of France. Muslims comprise an estimated 7.5 percent of France’s population, but almost 20 percent of Israel’s population–and that’s counting only Israeli citizens and legal residents, i.e. the Muslims who would still be there even if Israel quit the West Bank tomorrow.
Finally, though Israel’s Muslim population has largely shunned terror, its leadership is actually far more radical than France’s Muslim leadership seems to be. Israeli Arab Knesset members openly back anti-Israel terror organizations, actively incite to anti-Israel terror, and tirelessly libel Israel overseas. The head of one of the country’s largest nongovernmental Muslim groups–Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, which has tens of thousands of supporters–routinely spews anti-Semitic blood libels such as accusing Jews of baking matzo with Christian blood. And all that is without even mentioning the Palestinian leadership in the territories, where both the main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, routinely deem killing Israelis to be their main accomplishment.
In other words, if any country were going to lash out in response to Islamist terror by restricting Muslims’ freedom to observe their religion in public, one would expect it to be Israel, not France. But in Israel, no one has ever even suggested banning burkinis. Nor has anyone ever suggested forbidding civil students or schoolgirls to wear headscarves, as stipulated by other French laws that the courts have upheld. Nor has anyone ever suggested barring mosques from building minarets–a law approved by popular referendum in Switzerland, even though that country has so far had no Islamic terror problem at all.
Clearly, Israel’s religious tolerance can’t be attributed solely to its democratic norms. After all, France and Switzerland have impeccable democratic credentials, but that hasn’t stopped either from passing anti-Muslim laws. Nor is it because Israeli Arabs are a powerful enough minority to prevent such legislation: Arab Knesset members’ anti-Israel positions make them unacceptable as coalition partners in any government, and they would actually have no power to block anything the coalition majority wanted to pass. And it certainly isn’t because Israelis are saints who remain serenely forgiving of Arab terror and anti-Israel incitement; there’s plenty of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel.
Rather, the main reason why Israel never has and never would consider legislation like France’s bans on burkinis and headscarves is precisely because it is a Jewish state. In other words, it was created to take Jewish interests into account, and those interests include the freedom to observe traditional Jewish praxis. But the moment a democratic country starts making allowances for one religion’s traditions, those allowances inevitably spill over to other religions as well.
For instance, Israel could never ban headscarves in the civil service, because religious Jewish women also wear head coverings. It could never ban modest swimwear because religious Jews also insist on modest clothing. It could never ban minarets because the analogy to banning synagogues would be all too apparent. In contrast, France and Switzerland can do all those things, because they have no interest in accommodating any religion in the public square.
In short, Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state is the main reason why Islamist terror has never prompted the kind of anti-Muslim legislation that it has in secular democratic France. So the next time someone tells you Israel’s Jewish identity is inherently at odds with its democratic identity, remember the burkini. And remember that sometimes, Israel’s Jewish identity is precisely what protects its democratic one.
Originally published in Commentary on August 29, 2016
In the three days since Israel passed a law mandating new reporting requirements for NGOs that are primarily funded by foreign governments, there’s one question I have yet to hear any of its critics answer. If, as they stridently claim, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with NGOs getting most of their funding from a foreign government, then why would simply being required to state this fact in all their publications exercise a “chilling effect” (the U.S. State Department) or “stigmatize” them (the New Israel Fund) or result in “constraining their activities” (the European Union)?
The obvious answer is that the critics know perfectly well it isn’t alright: An organization that gets most of its funding from a foreign government isn’t a “nongovernmental” organization at all, but an instrument of that government’s foreign policy. In fact, with regard to the EU, that’s explicit in its funding guidelines: For an Israeli organization that conducts activities in the territories to be eligible for EU funding, it must comply with EU foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, incidentally, also explains why 25 of the 27 organizations affected by the law are left-wing: The far-left is the only part of Israel’s political spectrum that shares Europe’s opinions on the conflict, and hence, that Europe is willing to fund.
Yet if an organization is an instrument of a foreign country’s foreign policy, it’s very hard to argue that it’s an objective “human rights organization,” as the organizations in question bill themselves. Rather, it’s an overtly political organization that seeks to pressure Israel into adopting the foreign government’s preferred policies. And making this known definitely could be “stigmatizing,” in the sense that Israelis might be less willing to trust an organization’s assertions once they realize it has a not-so-hidden policy agenda that could be influencing its reports.
That, however, is precisely why Israelis have a need and a right to know where these organizations’ funding is coming from–especially given this funding’s sheer scale. And it’s also why there’s nothing remotely undemocratic about the law, as explained in depth by legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich here.
Nevertheless, if this is really what the law’s critics fear, then they’re behind the times. In the years since the idea of legislating this law first arose, most of the organizations in question have made themselves so toxic that it’s hard to see how information about their foreign funding could make Israelis view them any more negatively. Thus the more likely impact of publicizing their funding sources won’t be to delegitimize the organizations, but to delegitimize their donors–which is precisely why Europe, which provides most of this funding, is so worried.
Currently, a nontrivial portion of Europe’s influence in Israel comes from the fact that Israelis still admire it and, therefore, want it to like their country, not merely to trade with it. The fact that Europe is Israel’s biggest trading partner obviously also matters greatly, but the emotional angle, which stems mainly from Europe’s role as part of the democratic West, shouldn’t be underrated.
Now consider how that admiration might be affected by the discovery of how much money Europe gives, say, Breaking the Silence. This organization, which compiles “testimony” by Israeli soldiers about alleged abuses, is unpopular in Israel for many reasons–because Israelis don’t think its reports accurately reflect their army’s actions (see here for one egregious example); because its “testimony” is strictly anonymous, making it impossible to investigate its allegations; and because it spends most of its time and effort marketing its reports abroad, convincing many Israelis that it’s more interested in tarnishing Israel’s image than in getting the army to improve its behavior. But last month, two incidents brought its reputation to a new low.
The first was Mahmoud Abbas’ infamous address to the European Parliament, in which he repeated a medieval blood libel by claiming rabbis were ordering their followers to poison Palestinian wells. This accusation originated in a report by a Turkish news agency that cited Breaking the Silence as its source, which sounded highly unlikely. Except then the Israeli website NRG published a video showing one of the organization’s founders claiming that settlers had engineered the evacuation of a Palestinian village by poisoning its well. And a respected left-wing journalist, Ben-Dror Yemini, published a column with further documentation of both the organization’s claim and its falsity. So it turned out BtS actually was spreading a medieval blood libel.
Then, the following week, a group of reservists went public with their experiences of how BtS collects its testimony – which turns out to entail both harassment and deception. After their discharge from the army, the organization called them repeatedly to urge them to talk about their experiences in the 2014 Gaza war; one man said he was called eight or nine times. But when they finally acquiesced, they discovered that the organization had cherry-picked from their accounts to present the army in the worst possible light.
To grasp just how toxic BtS has become, consider the fact that the president of Ben-Gurion University–who has scrupulously defended its right to speak at university seminars–nevertheless overturned a departmental decision to grant it a monetary prize last month. What Professor Rivka Carmi essentially said is that while she will defend its right to speak, she isn’t willing to have her university finance the organization. And when you’ve lost the universities, which are among the most left-wing organizations in Israel, you’ve really lost the whole country.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2016
That Israelis are still arguing over the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron three weeks ago isn’t surprising; the very rarity of the case naturally makes it the talk of the country. What is surprising, however, is how many left-wing pundits have used comparisons to the famous Bus 300 affair of 1984 to accuse today’s Israel of moral degeneration (two examples here and here). For by any reasonable standard, what this comparison actually shows is how much higher Israel’s moral standards have become over the last 32 years.
The Bus 300 affair began when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a civilian bus, Bus 300, and threatened to kill all the passengers. Israeli troops eventually stormed the bus, killing two terrorists and capturing two others. The Shin Bet security service then took the bound, captured terrorists to an isolated spot and killed them. It subsequently claimed all the terrorists were killed when the bus was stormed, but that claim was disproven a few days later when an Israeli daily published a front-page picture of one captured terrorist being taken off the bus, clearly very much alive. Thus ended Act I; we’ll get to Act II later.
Last month’s incident in Hebron, in which the soldier killed a terrorist who was already lying on the ground wounded, has some obvious similarities. But consider the differences:
First, in the Bus 300 affair, the extrajudicial execution was perpetrated by the highest ranks of the defense establishment: It was ordered by then-Shin Bet chief Avshalom Shalom – who would later be lionized by leftists for denouncing Israel’s presence in the West Bank in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers”– and carried out by the agency’s then-chief of operations, Ehud Yatom. In contrast, the Hebron shooting was the private initiative of a single, relatively low-ranking conscript, a sergeant.
Second, the defense establishment did its best to cover up the Bus 300 killings, and they would probably have succeeded absent that newspaper photo. In contrast, according to every media account of the Hebron incident thus far, the ranking officer on the scene reported the shooting up the chain of command less than 10 minutes after it happened, and his superiors promptly decided to open a Military Police investigation. That decision was made even before B’Tselem published its famous video of the incident.
Third, after the Bus 300 photo was published, the Shin Bet tried to frame an innocent man for the killing. That man, army officer Yitzhak Mordechai, stood trial but was ultimately acquitted. As far as we know, nothing remotely comparable happened in the Hebron case.
But the contrast becomes even starker when we consider Act II of the Bus 300 affair. It opened two years later when three senior Shin Bet officers told then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres that Shalom had ordered the killings. Peres – who also later became a leftist icon (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) for his role in the Oslo Accords – not only refused to order an investigation but kicked the three out of the Shin Bet. They subsequently took their information to then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir, who did order a criminal investigation. But the government told him to drop it, and when he refused, he, too, was kicked out of office.
In the Hebron shooting, by contrast, not only has no one been fired for pursuing a criminal investigation but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, both from the center-right Likud party, publicly demanded a full and thorough probe. That probe is currently underway, and an indictment is expected shortly.
But the crowning glory of the Bus 300 affair occurred soon after Zamir’s dismissal, when then-President Chaim Herzog – like Peres, a member of the left-leaning Labor Party (which his son, Isaac Herzog, currently heads) – forestalled any further attempts at investigation by issuing a preemptive pardon to Shalom and four other Shin Bet officers. This is the only preemptive pardon in Israel’s history; usually, pardons are granted only after someone has been indicted and convicted. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld it, so nobody ever stood trial for the killings except the innocent man who was framed.
In contrast, barring some unexpected development, the Hebron shooter almost certainly will stand trial, most likely for manslaughter.
So how can anyone comparing these two incidents possibly see evidence of moral deterioration? It boils down to one claim: The Israeli public was “shocked” by the Bus 300 affair, whereas the Hebron shooter enjoys strong public support. That claim, however, ignores two important facts.
First is the fact that social media didn’t exist in 1984; if it had, it would have shown plenty of anti-Arab racism then, too. This isn’t mere speculation; 1984 is the year Meir Kahane’s subsequently banned Kach Party first entered the Knesset, and his supporters used to chant racist slogans in the streets.
The more important fact, however, is that most of the Hebron shooter’s support stems not from anti-Arab racism, but from three elements that didn’t exist in the Bus 300 case.
First, whereas the Bus 300 terrorists were already bound and harmless, the Hebron terrorist was still unbound and free to move his hands. Since wounded terrorists in similar situations have used that freedom to kill – for instance, by detonating explosive vests – many Israelis felt the soldier might well have been justified in opening fire if, as he claims, he saw a suspicious hand movement.
Second, the initial evidence against the soldier – before testimony had been taken from his comrades – consisted mainly of Palestinian video footage disseminated by B’Tselem. Since it’s hardly unknown for Palestinian videos to be edited in ways that distort the truth (for instance, by showing a soldier’s response to some Palestinian action but not the action itself, thereby making the response seem unprovoked), many Israelis were unwilling to condemn the soldier based solely on the video.
Third, many Israelis felt the soldier was badly wronged when Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot did immediately condemn him, without awaiting an investigation of the facts. And frankly, any self-respecting liberal ought to agree. Since Ya’alon and Eisenkot are the people who must approve every senior officer’s promotion, this constituted gross interference in the course of justice. Military prosecutors have already decided they can’t win a murder conviction, but with their bosses having publicly declared the incident a crime, they might well feel compelled to charge the soldier with something even if they would otherwise deem an indictment unwarranted.
In short, the different public reactions stemmed from serious substantive differences in the cases rather than from any major change in Israelis’ moral values. In contrast, the establishment’s behavior reflected a real change in moral values – and that change was entirely positive.
Three decades ago, an extrajudicial murder was ordered by the highest levels of the defense establishment, covered up by the highest levels of government and ultimately never investigated or prosecuted. Last month, a manslaughter (at most) was committed by a low-level soldier acting alone and immediately investigated by the military itself, with full support from the highest levels of government.
How any sane person can call that evidence of moral degeneration is beyond me. But then, as I’ve shown before, claims of Israel’s moral deterioration rarely hold up well under scrutiny.
Originally published in Commentary on April 13, 2016
Israel and its supporters have argued for years that many “human rights” organizations are far less concerned with human rights than with pushing a political agenda. But as long as that political agenda consisted mainly of attacking Israel, most Westerners remained convinced that these groups still deserved their credibility and moral haloes. Even initial forays into political issues unconnected with Israel – like Amnesty International’s controversial assertion last year that upholding human rights requires decriminalizing prostitution – didn’t destroy the halo. But by demanding that the European Union accept millions of Middle Eastern migrants rather than returning them to Turkey, these organizations have picked a political fight that millions of Europeans actually care about. And in so doing, they may be dealing their own credibility a long-deserved death blow.
The “human rights community” is outraged by the EU’s recent deal with Ankara, under which all migrants entering Europe via Turkey will be promptly returned there. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, declared that such “automatic forced return” is “illegal,” and the only acceptable solution is for EU countries to “ramp up the relocation of asylum seekers” into their own borders. Human rights groups similarly asserted that the deal violates international humanitarian law, inter alia, because they claim Turkey is unsafe for refugees. Amnesty, for instance, termed the deal “abhorrent.”
Then, angry over the EU’s refusal to accept their view, the organizations halted assistance to tens of thousands of migrants already in Greece. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children all suspended operations in Greek refugee centers to protest the deal.
There are numerous problems with the “human rights community’s” response to this deal, but let’s start with the biggest: the claim that it somehow violates international law, in the form of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
This convention was intended to ensure that anyone with a “well-founded fear” of persecution could find refuge somewhere, so as to prevent a repeat of the situation in which six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis because no country would let them in. But it never guaranteed anyone, much less tens of millions of people, access to the country of their choice.
Turkey, understandably, isn’t most refugees’ first choice. It’s an authoritarian country where basic rights like freedom of the press are ruthlessly suppressed; it has suffered numerous terror attacks in recent years; and it’s less wealthy than Europe. But all this makes it no worse than much of the rest of the world.
The one thing Turkey isn’t is unsafe for most refugees. It has hosted millions of Syrian refugees for years; the current tally exceeds 2.7 million. And unlike Syrians in Syria – where a brutal civil war has killed some 470,000 people since 2011 – the refugees in Turkey have survived. Turkey also grants full access to UN officials, so UNHCR could process refugee applications just as well in Turkey as it could in Greece.
Thus, if Turkey is willing to continue hosting these refugees in exchange for benefits like billions of euros and visa-free access to Europe, there’s no earthly reason why those refugees should be entitled to relocate to the EU instead. Indeed, if Turkey’s drawbacks suffice to entitle refugees to resettle in Europe, at least half the world’s population would be similarly entitled.
On this issue, the usually inapt analogy between Syrian refugees and Jews during the Holocaust is instructive. Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe certainly preferred to go to America, but they willingly fled to any country that would take them – not only impoverished, authoritarian countries in South America and Africa, but even China — then under brutal Japanese occupation. And while they didn’t have it easy, their flight accomplished its purpose: Most of those refugees, even in Japanese-occupied China, survived and could later rebuild their lives.
Similarly, refugees in Turkey don’t have it easy, but they’re surviving. Thus, relocating them to Europe isn’t necessary to fulfill the refugee convention’s goals; it’s necessary only to achieve a political purpose: remaking Europe by flooding it with millions of migrants.
But if rewriting international law to serve their political agenda weren’t bad enough, “human rights” groups then compounded the offense by hurting real human beings in order to push this agenda. Suspending aid to refugee centers in Greece won’t kill the deal; it will only make the refugees more miserable. So these groups are sabotaging refugees’ right to humanitarian assistance – a right they themselves claim the refugees have – just to make a political point.
Finally, there’s the fact that this political activism is aimed exclusively at the West. The UN and international aid organizations did not, for instance, suspend operations in government-controlled parts of Syria to protest the Assad regime’s refusal to grant them access to besieged rebel-held towns where people were literally starving to death – a far graver violation of international humanitarian law than returning asylum seekers to safe haven in Turkey. On the contrary, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs actively collaborated with the Assad regime to conceal the deadly impact of these sieges. In short, protesting Western “misbehavior” is so important that it even justifies withholding aid to people who need it, but far worse behavior by non-Western regimes doesn’t even merit verbal protests.
The response to the EU-Turkey deal once again proves the truism that what starts with the Jews never ends with them. With regard to Israel, the “human rights community’s” political agenda has long trumped concern with actual human rights. That’s why Amnesty, for instance, issued more than five times as many tweets one month last summer about the previous year’s Gaza war, which killed some 2,200 people, as it did about the ongoing Syrian war, which has killed 470,000: If Israel can’t be blamed, Amnesty isn’t much interested.
That’s also why Israeli organizations helping Syrian refugees in Greece discovered that while no Syrian ever refused their help, members of international “human rights” organizations did, even though the Israelis were among the few volunteers who spoke Arabic: These international “humanitarians” viewed boycotting Israel as more important than communicating with the refugees they ostensibly came to help.
Such politicization of human rights never bothered most Westerners as long as Israel was the only victim. But now that it’s being turned against Europe, perhaps the West will finally recognize the travesty that the “human rights community” has become.
Originally published in Commentary on April 4, 2016
The global firestorm that has erupted over Israel’s “NGO transparency bill” can’t be understood without knowing one crucial fact: Israel’s leading left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations are actually wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. This fact, which was incontrovertibly demonstrated by a new NGO Monitor study, explains both why the bill is so important and why it is so fiercely opposed by the organizations themselves and their European funders.
As I noted in Tuesday’s post, the study examined the financial reports filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations by 27 prominent organizations from 2010-2014. The groups include B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others actively engaged in trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas. Overall, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels during those years; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million.
Of this total, fully 65 percent – some $43 million – came either directly or indirectly from foreign governments, primarily European ones. Foreign governments provided 20 of the 27 groups with over 50 percent of their funding, and three groups (Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem and Emek Shaveh) received over 90 percent of their funding from foreign governments. The largest donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.
Moreover, this high level of European funding is absolutely unique, as demonstrated by a previous NGO Monitor report analyzing the years 2007-2010. That report found that the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights spends more on promoting “democracy and human rights” in “Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” than in every other country of the Mideast combined. Indeed, the EIDHR spends more in Israel alone – excluding all the grants given jointly to “Israel and the OPT” – than it does in every other Mideast country, every Asian and Pacific country, all but one African country and all but one American and Caribbean country; grants to “Israel and the OPT” together exceed those to every other country worldwide, by a very large margin.
The “transparency bill” would require any NGO that gets more than 50 percent of its funding from foreign governments to state this clearly on any report or publication it issues, and also in any written or oral contacts with public officials. The government-sponsored version would not require representatives of these groups to wear special nametags in the Knesset; that idea was raised in a private member’s bill, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it won’t be in the final legislation.
The bill’s supporters say it is similar to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. The U.S. Embassy in Israel disputes this, insisting that FARA applies only when groups engage in activities “at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity.” That claim, however, is patently false.
FARA’s actual text says a foreign agent need not be directly controlled by a foreign principal; he can also be acting “under the direction or control” of a third party “whose activities are … financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal.” In other words, he could be employed by a local NGO financed “in whole or in major part” by a foreign government. Moreover, FARA says explicitly that no formal contractual relationship between the agent and the foreign principal is necessary.
Thus receiving substantial contributions from a foreign entity actually could be enough in itself to make someone a foreign agent, as long as he also engages in one of four actions specified by the law, of which the relevant one in Israel’s case is the first: engaging “within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal.”
The EU and its member states make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is one of their top foreign policy goals. That contradicts the Israeli government’s position, which opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances.
The 20 NGOs in question similarly make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is a top policy goal. B’Tselem, for instance, unambiguously titled one of its fundraising appeals “Help End the Occupation: Support B’Tselem.” Yehuda Shaul, the foreign relations director for Breaking the Silence, explicitly defined the organization in a 2014 article as “Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation.” And so forth.
In other words, these organizations are conducting political activity in Israel aimed at pressuring the elected government to adopt a key European policy goal, all while being financed “in major part” by European governments. That’s precisely the situation FARA’s provisions are meant to cover, and for good reason: When certain donors provide more than half an NGO’s funding, no explicit contract is needed to ensure the NGO’s compliance with its donors’ wishes; the threat of losing funding is sufficient.
But lest there be any doubt, even the explicit contractual relationship sometimes exists. Just this month, for instance, an EU-sponsored organization gave B’Tselem €30,000 to lobby the Knesset against the NGO transparency bill, which the EU openly opposes. In other words, it paid B’Tselem to lobby the Knesset to enact the EU’s preferred policies.
There’s also no doubt that these European donors are hostile to Israel. Norway – the largest individual government donor – is remarkably honest about this; its Foreign Ministry says explicitly, for instance, that it funds UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, because it is “a guarantor that the rights of Palestine refugees, including the right to return, are not forgotten.” The “right of return,” needless to say, is Palestinian code for eliminating the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees.
But the rest of Europe isn’t much more subtle. For instance, the EU recently adopted discriminatory labeling requirements that apply only to “Israeli-occupied” territory, but not to territory occupied by any other country. It gives higher priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it does to other conflicts that are not only far bloodier, but have swamped it with an unprecedented refugee crisis. And the funding it pours into Israeli NGOs – more, as noted, than it gives the rest of the Mideast combined – isn’t because it thinks a 67-year-old democracy actually needs more help with democracy promotion than the world’s dozens of dictatorships; it’s because this money isn’t aimed at promoting “democracy and human rights” at all, but at subverting the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government.
By now, I doubt there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t know these NGOs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of European governments; indeed, the main reason they conduct so much of their activity overseas these days is that they have little credibility left in Israel. But abroad, these groups are still viewed as Israeli organizations representing an authentic Israeli perspective, and they also benefit from the NGO “halo effect.”
That is why the transparency bill is so critical, and also why both the organizations and European governments are fighting so hard to kill it: Once these groups are required to state openly, on everything they do, that they’re primarily funded by European governments, it will be possible to expose them for what they really are – not independent Israeli NGOs with Israel’s best interests at heart, but agents of a hostile foreign power that is obsessed by Israel, discriminates against it and wishes it nothing but ill.
Originally published in Commentary on January 22, 2016
During the Hamas-Israel war of 2014, both Obama Administration officials and their European counterparts repeatedly accused Israel of excessive force over the “massive” destruction of civilian property in Gaza. But if those officials retain even a shred of intellectual integrity, the recent devastation of Ramadi during a joint Western/Iraqi effort to retake the city leaves them only two options: either hand themselves over to the International Criminal Court as suspected war criminals, or publicly apologize to Israel for all the slurs they hurled at it over far less extensive damage.
As the New York Times reported last week, the successful recapture of Ramadi from the Islamic State left the city “in ruins.” Reporter Ben Hubbard described one neighborhood as “a panorama of wreckage so vast that it was unclear where the original buildings had stood.” The city has no electricity or running water, and “Many streets had been erased or remained covered in rubble or blocked by trenches used in the fighting.” When Hubbard asked an Iraqi officer how residents would return to their homes, the officer replied, “Homes? There are no homes.”
Indeed, a different Iraqi officer told the Associated Press “that more than half of the city’s buildings have been destroyed, including government offices, markets, and houses.”
This is devastation orders of magnitude greater than what Gaza suffered. According to UN figures, 9,465 homes in Gaza were completely destroyed and another 9,644 badly damaged, out of a total of roughly 319,000 (the latter figure is my own calculation based on official Palestinian statistics: Dividing Gaza’s total population of 1.82 million by its average household size of 5.7 people gives you 319,000 households). Thus even according to the UN – which traditionally exaggerates Palestinian casualties and damage – only about 6 percent of Gaza’s homes were destroyed or badly damaged. That’s a far cry from “more than half of the city” in Ramadi.
But the reasons for the destruction, in both places, are no less significant than its scope. One, as Hubbard noted, is the inherent difficulty “of dislodging a group that stitches itself into the urban fabric of communities it seizes by occupying homes, digging tunnels, and laying extensive explosives.” In Ramadi, he reported, Islamic State built tunnels under the streets and planted explosives in roads and buildings. Indeed, “Entire areas are considered no-go zones because they have yet to be searched for booby traps left by the jihadists.”
These are the same tactics Hamas used in Gaza: Tunnels, booby traps, and weapons stockpiles were placed in and under civilian buildings on a massive scale. On July 30, 2014, for instance, three Israeli soldiers were killed by “an explosion at a booby-trapped UNRWA health clinic that housed a tunnel entry shaft,” the Times of Israel reported. At the same press briefing where those deaths were announced, an Israeli officer said Hamas had thus far detonated more than 1,000 bombs, destroying “thousands of buildings” in Gaza. As an example, he cited a street the army searched the previous night in which 19 out of 28 buildings were booby-trapped.
But in Gaza, both the Obama administration and European officials blamed Israel for the ensuing destruction. In Ramadi, in contrast, both American and Iraqi officials quite sensibly “placed blame for the city’s destruction on the jihadists, who mined roads and buildings.”
The other factor in Ramadi’s devastation was airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. As AP reported, these strikes “smashed large parts of the city into rubble.” Nor is that surprising: When a target area is extensively booby-trapped, even precision airstrikes often cause greater-than-expected damage, because the attacking force can’t know which buildings are wired with explosives, and hitting a wired building will set off massive secondary explosions. Yet airstrikes are unavoidable when fighting militants entrenched in a sea of tunnels and booby-trapped buildings, because using ground troops alone would result in unacceptably high losses for the attacking force.
Consequently, a Pentagon spokesman correctly blamed Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) for the damage to Ramadi: “One hundred percent of this is on ISIL because no one would be dropping any bombs if ISIL hadn’t gone in there,” Colonel Steven H. Warren told Hubbard.
Yet in Gaza, both the Obama Administration and European officials largely blamed the damage on Israel rather than Hamas, even though Israeli airstrikes were employed for the exact same reason, sometimes caused greater-than-expected damage for the exact same reason, and obviously wouldn’t have been launched at all had Hamas not attacked Israel to begin with. Indeed, Israel’s airstrikes were arguably far more justified than America’s were: Islamic State wasn’t firing missiles at America from Ramadi or digging attack tunnels into American territory from Ramadi. In contrast, Hamas had fired thousands of rockets at Israel from Gaza over the previous decade and dug dozens of cross-border attack tunnels, including one that notoriously emerged right next to a kindergarten.
Ramadi, incidentally, is far from the only example of the way the Obama Administration and Europe hold Israel to a double standard. On Monday, the Elder of Ziyon blog highlighted another one: According to the Herald Scotland, “The British government is refusing to accept evidence of civilian fatalities in UK air strikes from human rights groups monitoring the results of bombing raids” in Syria and Iraq; instead, it relies exclusively on “evidence from its own internal surveillance.” But that same government uncritically accepted NGO reports saying that almost 70 percent of Palestinian casualties in Gaza were civilian, even though Israel scrupulously investigated those reports and found that in reality, about half the casualties were documented members of either Hamas’ military wing or smaller terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad.
I don’t really expect any Obama Administration or European official to admit to having unjustly criticized Israel during the Gaza war. But any fair-minded person comparing the devastation of Ramadi to that in Gaza should reach the same conclusion a group of high-ranking Western military experts did in a comprehensive report issued last month: that during the Gaza war, Israel “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.”
Originally published in Commentary on January 13, 2016
Back in June, Connecticut College philosophy professor Andrew Pessin proposed going on the offensive against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement by responding to every BDS proposal with a similar proposal targeting the Palestinian Authority’s terrorism, corruption, and human rights violations. I think it’s time to expand this terrific idea to the European Union following last week’s atrocious decision to apply special labeling requirements to Israeli produce of the West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. As a first step, I propose a worldwide campaign to label the produce of Spanish-occupied Catalonia and the Basque Country – not merely because these occupations have been around since long before the State of Israel was born, but because in contrast to Israel’s repeated efforts to negotiate solutions to its territorial disputes, the Spanish government has refused to even consider negotiating over Catalonian and Basque demands for independence.
In Catalonia, which has been occupied by Spain for hundreds of years (aside from a few brief interruptions), pro-independence parties currently control a majority of the provincial parliament. Nevertheless, the Spanish government adamantly rejected their plea to negotiate over their grievances.
Last year, Catalonia sought to hold a referendum on independence, but Spain’s Constitutional Court squelched the idea; consequently, the province had to make do with a nonbinding vote. Since standing in line to cast a meaningless ballot isn’t a terribly attractive proposition, turnout was unsurprisingly low (an estimated 37 to 41 percent). But a whopping 81 percent of those who did participate in the vote backed independence, reinforcing the impression left by an astounding demonstration in 2013 in which hundreds of thousands of Catalonians formed a 400-kilometer-long human chain to demand independence.
Earlier this month, an absolute majority of the Catalonian parliament passed legislation to begin the process of breaking away from Spain. But this legislation, too, was promptly suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court.
In short, Catalonia has repeatedly sought to obtain independence from Spain by peaceful means. Yet the Spanish government has squelched every such effort.
In the Basque Country, an absolute majority of the Basque provincial legislature approved a bill calling for self-determination back in 2003, but Spain’s national parliament wouldn’t even discuss the issue. In 2008, the Basque parliament decided to hold a referendum on self-determination, but the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that the vote couldn’t go ahead, just as it did in Catalonia’s case.
The Basque Nationalist Party appealed this decision to the European Court of Human Rights, but that court upheld the Spanish court’s ruling. Thus, it isn’t just Spain; the EU as a whole has been complicit in squelching the Basques’ desire for self-determination. Nevertheless, the Basques haven’t abandoned this desire; they periodically stage pro-independence demonstrations, and the province’s elected premier, inspired by Catalonia’s efforts, recently said he wants to make another stab at a referendum.
Incidentally, many pro-independence parties in the Basque Country haven’t even been allowed to run for office; Batasuna in 2003, EHAK in 2008, D3M in 2009 and Sortu in 2011 were all banned by Spain’s Supreme Court on the grounds that they had links with the Basque terrorist organization ETA. Yet Spain’s (justified) refusal to tolerate ties with terrorist organizations at home has never stopped it from demanding Israeli negotiations with and concessions to the PLO, whose various factions all proudly maintain “armed wings,” aka terrorist organizations.
The contrast between Spain’s treatment of Catalonian and Basque demands for independence and Israel’s treatment of Palestinian demands for independence couldn’t be starker. Whereas Spain adamantly refuses even to negotiate on the issue and has repeatedly squelched efforts to hold referendums, Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians a state in most of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem; it’s the Palestinians who have rejected these offers. Israel also actually withdrew from Gaza and parts of the West Bank to further the Palestinians’ quest for independence, whereas Spain has yet to vacate an inch of Catalonia or the Basque Country
Moreover, Israel has done all this despite rampant Palestinian terror throughout the years since the “peace process” began in 1993. In contrast, the Catalonian independence movement has never engaged in terror, while ETA has killed fewer people in almost five decades of activity than Palestinian terrorists did during the second intifada of 2000-05 alone, and has carried out no attacks at all since 2011. In other words, Israel would have far more excuse for intransigence than Spain does, because a Palestinian state shows every sign of being a real security threat to Israel, whereas Catalonia and the Basque country pose no comparable threat to Spain.
Israel also negotiated repeatedly with Syria on a land-for-peace deal in the Golan Heights. It was Syria’s meltdown into civil war that ultimately ended those negotiations.
It’s no secret that the EU’s labeling decision is a piece of unmitigated anti-Israel bias. As Prof. Eugene Kontorovich concisely explained in last week’s New York Times, it blatantly contradicts the EU’s own policy on other territorial disputes worldwide, as well as World Trade Organization rules and national court rulings in various European countries.
But if the EU believes labeling is the way to go, then the obvious place to start is at home. So it’s high time to begin labeling the produce of Spanish-occupied Catalonia and the Basque Country – two areas that, based on their track records, would be far more peaceful, productive members of the international community than a Palestinian state ever would.
Originally published in Commentary on November 19, 2015
The one saving grace about anti-Semites is that, contrary to Barack Obama’s famous claim, they generally are irrational and, therefore, they often overreach. The anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has been doing exactly that recently. In the past month alone, it has suffered three resounding and damaging failures.
The first, of course, was its “success” in pressuring a Spanish reggae festival to disinvite American Jewish singer Matisyahu unless he issued a statement backing a Palestinian state. Matisyahu, to his credit, didn’t merely refuse; he also made sure the world knew why he wouldn’t be appearing as scheduled. The subsequent public outcry not only made the festival hurriedly backtrack and reinstate Matisyahu in his original slot, but also exposed the truth of the BDS movement’s anti-Semitism, which it has long tried to hide. After all, Matisyahu isn’t Israeli; he was asked to issue that statement, alone of all the artists at the festival, simply because he was Jewish.
Next came last week’s decision to boycott Israel by the mighty municipality of Reykjavik (population about 120,000). Having naively expected applause for this display of moral indignation, the municipality was stunned to be met instead by an outpouring of condemnation, including from Iceland’s own prime minister, and quickly reversed course. But the damage, as Haaretz journalist Asher Schechter lamented, was already done: Reykjavik had provided further proof that the BDS movement, contrary to the widespread belief that it merely targets “the occupation,” is simply anti-Israel.
Then there’s my personal favorite, which occurred this week: the BDS protest against a Pharrell Williams concert in South Africa. When I first read about the planned protest, I couldn’t believe BDS was serious. A black American singer goes to South Africa to perform for black South Africans, and BDS wants to ruin the audience’s fun? Just because Williams’ corporate sponsor is a Jewish-owned retailer (Woolworths) that already boycotts produce from “the occupied territories”? But BDS evidently couldn’t see how bad this looked. It rashly promised some 40,000 demonstrators, “the largest protest event in South African history against any musician or artist.” And it wound up with a measly 500, as many South Africans suddenly discovered that BDS might not be their best guide to international morality.
Finally, as icing on the cake, the lawfare crowd also suffered an embarrassing defeat this month: After it painstakingly gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to force a debate in the British parliament on a motion to arrest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, parliament unceremoniously refused to debate it anyway on the grounds that the motion itself flagrantly violated both British and international law with regard to diplomatic immunity.
But all of the above are merely the tip of the iceberg of what could be done against BDS. As Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, has repeatedly stressed, one of the most important steps is pressuring Europe to stop funding anti-Israel hate groups by showing decision makers what their money is really being used for. This may seem like mission impossible, but as Steinberg wrote last week, the past year actually brought some significant progress:
Under the “Partnership for Peace Program”, the European Union did not renew grants for NGOs that promote BDS and lawfare, including for violent activities, marking the most significant change in over 15 years. A number of European embassies in Israel also reduced or ended grants for anti-peace NGOs. While there are still tens of millions of Euros and Pounds and Krona going to BDS, the trend is down, for the first time.
Legal action is another promising and underutilized tool. As I wrote last year, BDS has already suffered major setbacks in European courts. But the real legal game-changer, as professors Eugene Kontorovich and Avi Bell of the Kohelet Policy Forum argued recently, could be an Israeli challenge in the World Trade Organization against EU sanctions on settlement products. The EU plans to finalize a directive on labeling Israeli settlement produce next month, the latest in a series of directives targeting such produce. But as Kontorovich and Bell noted, the EU hasn’t imposed similar measures on other territories it deems occupied, such as Western Sahara or Kashmir, and WTO rules explicitly prohibit discriminatory trading policies.
The movement to Besmirch, Demonize and Slander the Jewish state is so hydra-headed and so venomous that it can often seem overwhelming. But in reality, it is big and strong enough to win only if nobody else is in the ring: As the past month’s events amply demonstrate, pushback works. Now it’s time to accelerate the pushback and put BDS where it belongs – on the defensive.
Originally published in Commentary on September 24, 2015
If you’ve ever wondered why so many overseas Jews view democratic Israel as irredeemably racist, consider the following story: Knesset member Robert Ilatov justifiably made headlines last Thursday by declaring that Arabs who refuse to sing the national anthem, “Hatikva,” shouldn’t be appointed as judges. But several prominent English-language Israeli news sites didn’t even bother mentioning the swift, uncompromising rejection of his view by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked; you won’t, for instance, find a word of her response in Haaretz’s report, while the left-wing +972 website dismissed it as a “weak protestation” by omitting all the most significant parts of her statement.
Shaked’s response matters not only because of her position, but because she herself is no bleeding-heart liberal; she’s second-in-command of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, the right flank of what the media routinely term a “hardline” government. And that’s precisely the point: While extremists always get headlines, the mainstream rejection of their views is ignored – even when that rejection is so sweeping that it encompasses the leadership of the most right-wing party in the governing center-right coalition.
Granted, Ilatov’s views can’t be dismissed as insignificant; the opposition back-bencher made his statement right after the Knesset chose him as one of the Judicial Appointments Committee’s nine members. But surely the contrary views of the other eight members – and especially Shaked, the panel’s chairwoman – should be considered no less significant when assessing Israel’s character.
Shaked, in her response, endorsed the compromise employed by Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran during his own swearing-in ceremony: Arab judges should stand for the anthem, because state officials must respect the state’s symbols, but they shouldn’t be required to sing along if they can’t identify with lyrics that, after all, are about the Jewish yearning for Zion. “A judge needs to stand during the national anthem, but I won’t be looking to see if he is mouthing the words to Hatikva or not,” she said.
She also endorsed the importance of maintaining the judiciary’s professionalism: “A judge needs to be selected first and foremost according to skills and criteria,” she stressed. Finally, she underscored the importance of having Arab judges in the system: “The fact that we have Arab judges is an admirable thing in a country where 20 percent of the population are minorities.”
In other words, the second-in-command of one of Israel’s most right-wing parties, who also happens to be the justice minister, said exactly what she should have said regarding Arab sensitivities, Arab representation in state institutions and judicial professionalism. But liberals who get their news from Haaretz or +972 will never know it; reading those reports, a well-meaning liberal would legitimately conclude that anti-Arab extremists are running around Israel unopposed.
The same is true of another important news item last week: Two brothers who torched Jerusalem’s Jewish-Arab Hand in Hand School last year were sentenced to 24 and 30 months in jail, respectively (the sentence reflects the fact that the attack endangered no lives, since it occurred overnight). The arson made headlines worldwide as evidence of Israel’s “racism.” But how many international media outlets bothered reporting the fact that the perpetrators were caught, indicted and sentenced to jail?
This isn’t a minor detail. No country on earth has ever managed to eradicate hate crimes; thus the difference between a decent society and an intolerant one is not whether such crimes occur, but how society responds. Are the perpetrators lionized and allowed to walk free – as, for instance, Palestinian terrorists are? Or are they universally condemned, brought to trial and given heavy sentences?
Israel is in the latter category: Not only was the arson universally condemned at the time, but the perpetrators are now doing jail time. But because the initial attack made headlines overseas while the subsequent sentence was either ignored or merited at most a brief mention, the impression left is the opposite: that Israel is a place where hate crimes are tolerated.
Neither Israel nor its supporters can change the media coverage. But liberal Jews who care about Israel can and must try to educate their fellows about the distorted image this coverage conveys. Because criticizing Israel for its minority of extremists while never even acknowledging the majority’s efforts to fight them isn’t “tough love”; it’s sheer dishonesty.
Originally published in Commentary on July 26, 2015