JERUSALEM — The Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, voted this week to set up a committee to investigate the funding of local human rights groups that right-wingers here say are acting against Israel’s interests —a move opponents compare to the McCarthyism of the United States in the 1950s.
The committee, which was an initiative of legislators from several parties in the governing coalition, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, will have limited powers. But human rights groups argue it will create an atmosphere of hatred against the groups and their workers.
Opposition legislator Dov Khenin said the committee would play on the same fears and hatreds as did Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee.
“It’s a carbon copy of the anti-democratic model that is remembered in infamy as a dark chapter in American history,” Khenin said.
The committee’s proponents claim Israeli rights groups supply information to foreign organizations. That information, they say, has in some cases helped spark international boycotts of the country.
Fania Kirshenbaum, one of the backers of the bill from the right-wing Israel Our Home Party, told the Knesset that such groups gave information to the Goldstone Commission, a U.N. investigation that found fault with Israel’s conduct of its war against Hamas in Gaza two years ago. A right-wing group published a report six months ago that alleged the U.N. received information from an Israeli rights group whose funding came from the U.S.-based New Israel Fund, which supports a wide range of Israeli organizations.
Kirshenbaum also said Israeli groups provide ammunition to opponents of Israel in Europe and elsewhere who have filed indictments of Israeli leaders and soldiers in foreign courts for war crimes.
The committee will focus on the funding of Israeli human rights groups. That’ll provide little information that isn’t already available in the records of the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations. But it will make for some conspiracy theories that are likely to stoke fear.
“It won’t surprise you if I tell you that some of the money comes from Arab countries,” Kirshenbaum told the Knesset.
Danny Danon, a Likud legislator, said the committee would have a rather broad purview. He said in parliament that “terrorist groups that try to purchase state land or act in other interests” would come under scrutiny from the committee, which would try to prevent “illegitimate funding.”
Opponents say that the implication of such comments is that groups such as B’Tselem, a human rights organization focused on the rights of Palestinians, the Association for Human Rights in Israel, Peace Now and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, are all outside plants whose work is intended — by its shadowy money men — to undermine Israel.
In response, B’Tselem said that if Israel is undermined, it’s only by the violation of human rights and, once again, by a law that seeks to deflect Israel’s responsibility for violations carried out in its name.
“The motive behind the investigation is to hinder our work through smears and incitement,” a B’Tselem official said.
It’s hardly unusual that any Israeli operation might receive overseas funding. Everything here — from the fighter jets patrolling the skies to hospital MRIs and the forests of pine trees — is paid for with donations from overseas, not always from Jewish organizations, either.
Conservative parties, however, have reacted with rage in recent years to human rights investigations of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories — linking any person or group that fails to accept the policy of the government to Israel’s enemies.
Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg said this week that human rights groups should boycott the committee, as should left wing legislators who oppose it.
“It’s nothing more than noise, trying to undermine the foundations of democracy,” Burg said.
The New Israel Fund’s Chief Executive Daniel Sokatch criticized the establishment of the committee.
“A healthy democracy respects and protects human rights,” he said. “It doesn’t attempt to put out of business human rights organizations.”