Analysis from Israel

NGO Monitor has just published an important study of the funding of Israel’s premier left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations. The first fact that arises from the study is no surprise to anyone who has been following the issue: Far from being “nongovernmental,” these groups are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. But the second fact did surprise me: The New Israel Fund, which has become the bête noire of pro-Israel activists both in Israel and abroad in recent years, is actually a comparatively minor donor to these groups. If it closed up shop tomorrow, its grantees would still manage just fine.

The study examined the funding of 27 organizations from 2010 to 2014, using the financial reports the groups filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations. It also compiled a complete database of all donations to these groups during those years. The groups in question are the usual suspects, including B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others whose main activity nowadays seems to be trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas.

Overall, the report said, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels in 2010-2014; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million (all dollar conversions are my own). Of this, a whopping 65 percent – some $43 million – came from foreign governments (primarily European), either directly or indirectly.

Twenty of the 27 groups received more than 50 percent of their funding from foreign governments, and three of them – Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem, and Emek Shaveh – received over 90 percent of their funding from these governments. The largest governmental donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.

In contrast, the NIF accounted for only 12 percent of these organizations’ total funding, less than a fifth of what they received from their governmental sponsors. Indeed, the EU alone – not including its member states – provided more than two and a half times as much as the NIF did. The NIF isn’t even the largest private-sector donor. That honor, unsurprisingly, goes to a European group: the Sigrid Rausing Trust, a London-based foundation started by a Swedish philanthropist, which provided the groups in question with 14 percent of their funding.

Based on the very small selection of NIF supporters I know personally, I’ve always suspected that most NIF donors are well-meaning, pro-Israel Jews who genuinely seek to make Israel a better place according to their own lights. I dislike many NIF grantees and many NIF officials, and I wish those well-meaning Jews would find a more constructive channel for their donations, but they clearly have as much right to donate to their preferred Israeli causes as Jews of any other political persuasion have to donate to theirs.

Yet even if I’m wrong in my assessment of the NIF’s supporters, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. And those numbers lead to an unavoidable conclusion: Pro-Israel activists have been busy picking fights with fellow Jews when the real enemies are hostile foreign governments. By focusing so much of our ire on the NIF, we have effectively been giving the real culprits a pass. And it’s long past time for us to correct this error and start focusing our ire where it belongs – on the EU and its member states.

Originally published in Commentary on January 19, 2016

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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