THE BLOG
01/28/2016 06:27 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Tyranny of the Israeli Majority?

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Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jewish people. But it was also founded to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants," according to its Declaration of Independence.

Despite Israel's roots as a liberal democracy, within the next week, the Israeli Knesset will vote on a bill designed to stigmatize and harass progressive organizations. Under the pretense of greater "transparency," the bill creates a series of new requirements that target only Israeli groups that criticize Israeli government policy.

The bill is a brazen attempt to use the tyranny of the majority against civil society organizations critical of the current government's policies. Human rights organizations and other progressive NGOs already fully disclose their funding, rendering the current bill superfluous even by the standards of its supporters. Not a single progressive Zionist is surprised to learn that the bill's provisions somehow avoid applying the same "transparency" requirements to the mechanisms that fund Israel's ultranationalist and settler organizations on the right.

The bill's supporters have tried to compare the measure with a U.S. law that requires lobbyists representing foreign governments to register as foreign agents. The U.S. government cried foul, with State Department Spokesperson John Kirby saying, "They're two different things," and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro voiced concern about the bill.

Israel's bill, in reality, moves Israel closer to the policies of Vladimir Putin's Russia and other authoritarian regimes that clamp down on civil society. No democracy worthy of its name targets only civil society organizations that disagree with the government. With this bill, Israel risks joining the ranks of countries like Russia, China and Iran that stifle voices of opposition and view human rights organizations as foreign agents and threats to be eliminated.

What's happening in Israel is about more than this one piece of legislation, tainted though it may be. Just last week, Ambassador Shapiro called out the government for the two systems of law on the West Bank -- civil for settlers, military for Palestinians. The European Union is taking further steps to differentiate the settlements from sovereign Israel. The Washington Post, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other mainstream American organizations have weighed in against the legislation and the continued fraying of Israel's democratic institutions.

And just this week, the extremist group Im Tirtzu launched a new campaign labeling Israel's most prominent writers, artists and performers foreign "plants" because some are affiliated with human rights organizations. Although a recent, similar campaign that named four human rights activists as traitors found silent assent from right-wing politicians, this new assault on free speech and dissent is so outrageous that even the head of Israel's Jewish Home party, which represents settler interests, spoke out against it.

But given the years in which leaders of the governing coalition worked with Im Tirtzu and other well-funded attack dogs to demonize and isolate progressive civil society, their current protests ring hollow.

The relentless right-wing campaign that seeks to silence dissent continues to actively weaken the foundations of Israeli civil society. Those who want to protect Israel's future as a democratic state must speak out against this bill and, more importantly, work to strengthen the hands of those Israelis who seek to defend the great values on which Israel was founded.

The good news is that the ultranationalists are feeling the heat. They are expending enormous political capital on a bill they once thought was a slam-dunk. Even within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, Kulanu Knesset Member Michael Oren -- Israel's former ambassador to the U.S. -- has criticized the bill, saying it might "play exactly into the hands of those elements that are trying to boycott us." Ordinary Israelis are hearing about the war against the human rights community and about the special privileges and dirty tactics of the settler lobby, and they are asking questions and voicing their concerns.

Israel's centrist politicians -- especially those who were once part of the fight for greater equality -- must understand that there is an enormous constituency of Israel's supporters that stands ready to work with them in support of greater equality, democracy, and social and political rights.

We already see an alarming ebbing of international support for Israel, directly related to 49 years of occupation, continued settlement expansion, and the constant chipping away at democratic institutions that protect minority rights and freedom of conscience.

The "transparency" bill -- more aptly entitled the hypocrisy bill -- is another mistake that Israel cannot afford to make.