To put it mildly, I don’t have much love these days for the Israeli left. I watch my former colleagues in the so-called peace camp and am astonished by how deluded they are in their belief that negotiations with the murderous and corrupt Palestinian Authority are still possible, how dishonest they are in their refusal to speak honestly about Palestinian anti-Semitism and incitement, and how ready they are to blame Israel for the smallest of infractions while giving its sworn enemies the benefit of every doubt. I find them a morally muddled, intellectually confused, and emotionally squishy bunch. But even I felt sick the other day when watching the controversial new ad by the right-wing movement Im Tirztu.
The ad, which is about as subtle as a Trump stump speech, accuses the leaders of four Israeli leftist nonprofit organizations of being shtulim, a loaded Hebrew word roughly meaning undercover agents. The four, the video argues, using military-style imagery, receive funds from European governments while severely criticizing Israel and providing Palestinian terrorists with legal counsel. “While we fight terror,” the video menacingly concludes, “they fight us.”
You hardly have to be a card-carrying Likudnik to agree that there’s something infuriating—and potentially corrosive to Israeli democracy—about European governments funneling millions into Israeli organizations committed to furthering anti-Israeli bias, advocating sanctions against Israeli institutions and individuals, or challenging the country’s national security interests in ways direct and indirect.
But how to address such threats? Israel hasn’t really devised a coherent solution, and now that virtually all of Europe is rushing to support domestic nongovernmental organizations that strongly oppose the government’s policies—the four NGOs featured in the video are financed by contributions from the governments of, in alphabetical order, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—a slew of legislation is being considered, including one proposal introduced by Im Tirztu in its new ad. Because this is a political hot-button issue, and because many of the proposed bills are deeply misguided, it’s worth looking at the two models we’ve got for handling such challenges: the American, which is effective and respectful of civil society; and the Russian, which was designed as a tool of intimidation and control.
Fearing the nefarious effects of Nazi and Soviet propaganda, the United States passed the Foreign Agent Registration Act in 1938. It requires organizations or persons acting “under the direction or control of a foreign principal” and engaged “in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal” to register with the U.S. government as a foreign agent. This is a straightforward solution that guarantees transparency and keeps everyone’s motives aboveboard. When the Irish Northern Aid Committee, for example, guided and operated by the IRA, gave financial aid to the families of IRA terrorists, it was registered as a foreign agent. The same designation does not apply for the Center on Global Interests, a D.C. think tank that, while financed by Russian funders, nevertheless does not represent the interests of the Russian government or other Russian entities. If applied in Israel, a similar law would protect the aforementioned lefty NGOs from undue harassment; while they do receive large checks from the Old Continent, they are clearly motivated by a genuine concern for their own country, one that is funded, but not dictated by, Europe.
In Russia, this crucial distinction is of little use. Passed in 2012 and brandished frequently and effectively as a political tool ever since, Russia’s equivalent of FARA refers, ominously, to “political activities, including in the interests of foreign sources.” It lacks, as analyst Vladimir Kara-Murza pointed out, the concept of a foreign principal, namely the burden of proving that an individual or institution is taking direct orders from abroad and wholly representing the interests of a foreign government or entity.
The bill Im Tirztu is promoting—the full text is available here, if you dare—is much, much closer in spirit to Putin’s law than to FARA, defining any Israeli organization receiving financial aid from any foreign government as a foreign agent.
I’ve spent enough time in the Israeli left and am familiar enough with its luminaries to know that whatever noxious opinions they may hold, the overwhelming majority of them firmly believe that they are acting in Israel’s best interests. They may receive material support from European entities, and said entities may not always have Israel’s well being at heart, but there can be little doubt in the minds of all but the most rabid fanatics that these Israeli individuals and organizations—however misguided they may be, however real the damage their actions might cause—are working to realize a vision they have for their own nation, not some foreign principal’s evil scheme.
To suggest otherwise is odious. To do so in a video thick with intimations of treason is downright dangerous. Anyone who truly cares about preserving Israel’s democratic foundations should refrain from peddling such cheap incitement and instead focus on defeating the haters and the liars in the only arena that has ever proven truly effective in the long run, that of free and unfettered exchange of ideas.
These are not just platitudes. Breaking the Silence is a case in point: One of the four nonprofits targeted by Im Tirztu, it is dedicated to documenting alleged misconduct by Israeli soldiers. With no real sanction imposed on Breaking the Silence, the organization was free to make its case in front of the Israeli public. And the Israeli public, for the most part, found Breaking the Silence to be a mendacious organization dedicated not to speaking some difficult, hidden truth but to demonizing Israel for political gain. There’s no better way for a democracy to defend itself than to merely engage in debate, and no greater risk to its longevity than claiming, ridiculously, that one’s political opponents are traitors and spies. Whatever law Israel ends up passing, it should first and foremost reflect this basic democratic truth.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.