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 constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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