Workshop: Do Politics of Funding Determine the Boundaries of Political Discourse (April 2011)

“There is a huge conflict between the agenda of the funders and the agenda of civil society organizations. This is especially true with respect to the situation here [in Israel], where the agenda and desires of Palestinian civil society organizations are in total contradiction to those of the state. All funding must come in through the door of the existing political and ideological regime.” These were some of the comments made by Dr. Amal Jamal, a member of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Political Science and director of I’Lam–Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, at a roundtable discussion organized by Mada al-Carmel–Arab Center for Applied Social Research.

The discussion focused on civil society organizations and the interference of funding policy in dictating the boundaries of political debate. Dr. Raif Zreik, of the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University, and a lecturer in law at the Carmel Academic Center in Haifa, made the same claim, arguing that all sources of funding clearly entail interference in civil society and that each funding organization has its own agenda. The question, Dr. Zreik pointed out, is how to cope with the organizations’ interference and their contradictory agenda.

In opening the discussion, Ms. Einas Odeh-Haj, assistant director of Mada, said that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the role of Palestinian civil society, with attention to the funders’ growing interference in political matters, and the bills on the table of Israel’s parliament to limit the activity of civil society organizations. Odeh-Haj presented some questions for the participants’ consideration, among them: Do the funders dictate the boundaries of political debate? Are civil society organizations capable of coping with the funding organizations’ interference in political matters? What tools are available to combat this interference? How should foundations, such as the New Israel Fund, that condition funding on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, be handled?

Dr. Jamal presented a historical survey of the development of civil society organizations in the Israeli context. In the beginning, he pointed out, civil society organizations were established by the Zionist left, which operated in accordance with views held by the state and by funding entities. Only later, with the rise of a right-wing government, did the conflict between the views of the two sides appear. Jamal also noted that the right had recently increased its attack on civil society organizations and taken action to prevent funding of organizations that did not share its hegemonic ideological view of the state, and that Israel was actively engaged in pressuring foundations and in enacting laws that comport with its view. Jamal emphasized that, to withstand the attack on Palestinian civil society organizations, it was necessary to discuss these issues among civil society and mount a counter attack.

Dr. Zreik also argued that the question was not whether the funders were involved in policymaking and in the activities of civil society organizations, rather, the question was what role the organizations should play in a state like Israel, which was founded on the destruction of Palestinian society. In reacting to the attack mounted by the organizations and the state, he argued civil society organizations must increase their legitimacy within Palestinian society. The battle, he said, was between “one side, which has material resources, and the other side, which has legitimacy and justice as its resource.” He also suggested that action be taken to improve the effectiveness of the administration of the civil society organizations, and that the organizations work together to draft a code of ethics, which would strengthen them in their battles with the funders.