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Vicious? We’re the opposite!

    Tensions: But human rights groups believe they can have a positive influence on Israel
    Tensions: But human rights groups believe they can have a positive influence on Israel

    The Bible records how the Israelites developed from tribal families to become Am Yisrael, a people in their own land. We see how they developed societal structures to spread power away from individuals to roles and systems, and what happened when those structures eroded. The model checking and balancing of power became the tripartite leadership of King, Priest and Prophet.

    The roles of political/military leader and of priest were divided between Aaron and Moses. There followed leaders who emerged to suit the needs of the time - the Judges - until Samuel, the last of the Judges anointed first Saul and then David into the hereditary role of kingship. As the structure formalises, prophets emerge. We first meet Nathan the court prophet as he is reassuring David of God's approval, but soon he is rebuking him for his behaviour over Bathsheba, demanding: "Why have you despised the word of the Eternal, to do evil in My sight?"

    David understood the role of the prophet was to speak truth to power, keeping leadership accountable and focused on the divine mission. Other prophets were not so lucky. As they challenged leaders and warned of behaviours that would bring about destruction, even Jeremiah and Isaiah had a tough time.

    The kings and priests of ancient Israel had hard power - running military strategy, setting taxes, deciding law, directing worship. In the space between, grew the critical role of prophecy, functioning outside established power structures - vital to keep them honest. Prophets spoke of justice; they challenged the establishment elites to promote change in a society that was going ''off the derech''

    Kohelet teaches "there is nothing new under the sun". The prophetic role is again causing discomfort to the establishment elite, and again there is a desire to rein it in and diminish its power. The many Israeli human-rights organisations are something to be proud of - enriching civil society and contributing to discourse that strengthens democracy. Yet the government finds them irksome and is using legislation to erode their voice.

    NGOs focusing on civil liberties, the rights of the vulnerable - be they Jewish, Palestinian, or asylum seekers - or that draw attention to activities beyond the green line find themselves misrepresented and attacked.

    The vitriol has travelled to this country as articles in the Jewish Chronicle by both Melanie Phillips and Geoffrey Alderman demonstrated last week. The calumnies that NGOs are defaming and demonising Israel, funded by foreign governments in order to represent their interests - which by definition are against Israeli interests - are being spread far and wide in order to label them as foreign moles or fifth columnists.

    Inexplicably, Phillips describes Rabbis for Human Rights as having a ''vicious agenda''. She should look at their work and the list of supportive rabbis around the world before leaping to such an erroneous conclusion.

    Alderman says that, last year, Bassam Eid "was reportedly forced out of B'tselem" because he wanted them to investigate Palestinian abuses which the European funders did not want exposed. He is simply wrong. Bassam Eid left B'tselem amicably 20 years ago.

    It is a matter of record that B'tselem also investigated human-rights violations by the Palestinian Authority and, while providing information and criticism about violations by the PA and Hamas, as an Israeli organisation it focuses on Israeli governments' actions.

    NGOs seek funding from any legitimate source sharing their core values. Accepting grants from foreign government entities doesn't entail doing that government's bidding, but helps develop the NGO's own work. EU or American funding does not make NGOs foreign agents, just as EU funding in this country does not constitute invasion by stealth.

    Ayelet Shaked has introduced a Bill designed to stigmatise human-rights NGOs and, literally, to force them to wear a label in order, she says, to increase transparency.

    I am all for transparency - and indeed so is existing Israeli law which already requires all registered NGOs to make mandatory disclosure of donations from any foreign political entity as well as publicise all donations on their website.

    Shaked's proposal does not increase transparency - she is leaving untouched the opacity surrounding the large private donors who typically give to the right-wing and settlement groups with enormous impact on Israeli society.

    The atmosphere of fear currently existing in Israel means that people are susceptible to anything that promises more security but shutting up the voices of conscience will not help.

    Neither the flawed legislation under consideration nor the labelling of NGOs as agents of foreign powers will help Israel through this time. Only a strong civil society, public debate and people willing to take on the role of prophecy will keep her, and us, safe.

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