Amnesty and the Anti-Boycott Law: Is This How Our Government “Protects” Israel Against BDS?
Why is there even an argument about this? Why does Israel need to make a law saying that organizations such as Amnesty International Israel, working within the country that promote boycotts against her and, ultimately, her destruction, can be denied access to the public purse? Why is that not self-evident? Does that really fall under the category of free speech or does it not pass some red line?
The Knesset, seeing that legislation is necessary, has been wrangling with this issue but mostly dragging its feet. In the meantime, Amnesty International Israel has benefited from Israeli tax benefits as our elected representatives let the relevant laws sit half-baked on a table somewhere and . . .
Just last week, Amnesty International launched a boycott campaign targeting four major online firms marketing tourist packages — AirBnb, Tripadvisor, Booking.com and Expedia — because they advertise tourist attractions and list accommodations in Judea & Samaria. Among these: Shiloh in the Binyamin Valley, Susya in the south Hebron Hills, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea, the ancient Jewish capital of Hebron and dozens more.
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) February 4, 2019
The sites censured are clearly historical Jewish Biblical sites and any claim that they are “Palestinian” flies in the face of history as it has been known for centuries.
So far, Tripadvisor and Booking.com rejected the call.
This is, of course, not the first instance of Amnesty taking an anti-Israeli stance. In 2012, the organization published a call to implement a weapons embargo against Israel and they repeated this in 2014. Following Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the organization conducted an international campaign seeking to put individual Israeli soldiers on trial in The Hague for war crimes they argue the IDF committed.
However none of this seems to have tarnished the impression the public had (and some still have) of Amnesty being an apolitical human rights organization. In fact, in 2010, the organization began participating in an Education Ministry programme leading discussions in schools on the topic of human rights.
Then, in 2016, Amnesty was approved by the Tax Authority to receive benefits under Section 46 of the Income Tax Ordinance that gives tax deductions to donors of approved charitable organizations. This is a highly desirable status for an organization, and many, for example B’zelem, were not awarded this benefit. Amnesty, on the other hand, was regarded as a human rights organization that fit all the relevant criteria. Their participation in the Education Ministry project contributed to this impression.
Amnesty International Israel was part of a list of 76 organizations brought to the Knesset Finance Committee session in October 2016, for their rubber stamp. Generally, the Committee does not question organizations approved by the Authority; however, this time fierce opposition to Amnesty was raised by Members of Knesset Oded Fehr (Yisrael Beitenu), Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and Miki Zohar (Likud). (Click to read the session summary in Hebrew).
Finally, a compromise was reached; Amnesty, in contrast with other approved organizations whose benefits last for a predetermined three-year time period, was to be given charitable status only for one year and during the course of that year, the subject was to be re-evaluated. If evidence was found showing that the organization calls for boycott or otherwise acts in opposition to the State of Israel, their funding could be rescinded.
It fell upon the Tax Authority to prepare the report on Amnesty. By the time they had prepared their report a year and a-half later, even though they did not distribute it to Committee members as requested, Amnesty had already shown their hand. In 2017, Amnesty International initiated a campaign calling on world governments to place an arms embargo on Israel in “honour of the 50th anniversary of The Occupation” and not to purchase goods produced in Judea & Samaria.
At this point, Education Minister Naftali Bennett terminated their participation in school programmes.
Government ministers, including Moshe Kahlon, Ayelet Shaked, and Gilad Erdan, called for an end to funding for the organization, something that only the Finance Committee can actually approve. According to Shai Glick of Betzalmo, the Tax Authority refused to pass the report on to members of the Knesset and Gafni refused to convene a committee session to discuss the issue. After much pressure, he agreed to hold a discussion but then refused to hold a vote. Why is he holding back? Is it because this would set a precedent for careful re-examination of the charitable organization status of many other NGOs, some of which Gafni has a personal interest in keeping out from under the microscope?
The plot thickens when we consider that an anti-boycott law was passed in 2011. The law clearly states that an organization calling for boycott of Israel can, on the authority of the Finance Minister, be denied Section 46 tax exemption benefits. It is also prohibited from taking part in government bids subject to a hearing in which arguments set forth by the organization would be heard. Sounds good, right?
However, section 4 (b) of the Anti-Boycott Law states that the Finance Minister must operate in accordance with regulations defined in the law – and here is the catch: Those regulations have never been set! The law went into effect 90 days after publication and yet, the fact that there are no regulations provides an excuse for not applying it in cases such as this one. The spokesman for Minister Kahlon told me that, yes, the law stipulates that Kahlon can rescind the tax deduction rights of Amnesty before the regulations are written into the law, but then this decision could be challenged in court because the regulations have not yet been written into the law, so why go forward before the regulations are in place?
Are you as dizzy as I am yet?
And why? Why would the government delay completing a law that protects Israel from BDS? Why would they delay completing a law that gives the Tax Authority the reason it needs to cease benefits to Amnesty and its ilk without having to defend that decision if taken to court over it? Why should it take eight years to write regulations to a law that has otherwise been passed by the Knesset? The Supreme Court upheld all but one section of that law when challenged by a number of left wing and Arab organizations. In fact, in that decision, the Supreme Court declared (page 168) that the regulations should be written into the law with haste [יש מקום להחיש התקנת תקנות] and that was in April 2015.
Others within the Knesset pleaded with Kahlon to take action. In February 2018, MK Nava Boker (Likud) wrote to him, asking him to rescind the tax deduction benefits from Amnesty International Israel. Just before their approval expired in December 2018, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan wrote the Finance Minister a letter asking him to ban Amnesty from future approvals. Why was everyone putting the pressure on Kahlon when even before the issue with Amnesty arose there had been plenty of time to complete the regulations in the Anti-Boycott Law of 2011 that would have given him free rein to do what had to be done?
What This Means for Amnesty Israel
In effect, Amnesty got the same three years everyone else did – the approval in October 2016 counts as one year (10-12.2016). This was continued automatically in 2017 and then again in 2018 because the Tax Authority did not get a request from Kahlon or from the Finance Committee to cease the benefits. The Tax Authority Spokesperson informed me by email today that they are considering renewal of the request for tax benefit status. At any time, in other words, their benefits can be reinstated.
After the Finance Committee meeting in October 2016, Amnesty International Israel announced on their Hebrew website that they had won a victory and praised MK Smotrich for giving them amazing publicity when he made such a public display of opposition to them. Their piece included a pitch for Israelis to send in their donations now that the donations are tax deductible. Feels like a slap in the face to me.
At the same time, Haaretz reported that Justice Minister Shaked pledged to prepare an amendment to the Income Tax Ordinance that would prohibit tax benefits to organizations working to harm Israel. And not only that, but that she would make sure it went through quickly. She told Haaretz:
מדינת ישראל לא תיתן את הלחי השנייה שלה. נפעל להפסקת האבסורד שארגונים נהנים מכספי משלמי המסים של אזרחים נגדם הם פועלים. .
In English: The State of Israel will not turn the other check. We will work to end the absurd situation in which organizations benefit from taxpayers’ money while acting against those very same taxpayers.
Even more absurd is that Amnesty Israel has hired two national service volunteers and advertises for more. These volunteers manage the Amnesty office and, among other things, manage the new media and organize tours. There is no doubt that over this past year numerous trips vilifying Israel were conducted by Amnesty’s national service volunteers. Furthermore, the current boycott campaign being publicized in the social media falls to those same Israeli national service volunteers working, thereby, against their own nation. Such as this:
ענקיות ההזמנות המקוונות בתחום התיירות מתדלקות את הפרות זכויות האדם של הפלסטינים באמצעות פרסום מאות מקומות לינה ואטרקציות בהתנחלויות הישראליות הבלתי חוקיות שבשטחים הפלסטינים הכבושים.
— Amnesty Israel (@AmnestyIsrael) January 30, 2019
Does this make sense to anyone?
Therefore, we have an Anti-Boycott Law that lies impotent in the books. We have a promised amendment to the Income Tax Ordinance that never got up out of the online media and into the law books. We have a Finance Committee chairperson who refuses to convene the Committee to carry out a discussion of principles regarding denial of funding, and a National Service Authority that feels hamstrung and unable to act against the fact that National Service volunteers are, instead of advancing human rights, being used to promote boycott against their own nation.
In the Supreme Court decision regarding the legality of the Anti-Boycott Law and its effect on receiving financial benefits from the government, it is written:
באשר לתמיכות כספיות, אשר מעניקה המדינה, נפסק לא פעם, כי אין לאדם, או לגוף, זכות קנויה לקבל מענקים מהמדינה
In English: Regarding financial support provided by the state, it has been ruled at times, that there is no person or body that has a vested right to receive grants from the state.
But because there are certain bodies who do feel they have the right to do anything they want and to call that freedom of speech, and even to expect the government to pay for the “privilege” of having the country (not the government, the country) disparaged and harmed, laws are needed to keep the government and public agencies out of court wasting court time and public money. So why does it take so long to complete regulations that should have been done eight years ago?
Researching this article gave me a headache. If this is how our government operates when they promise to act fast because the matter is urgent, it is a wonder anything ever gets done.
With elections coming up, why don’t you ask candidates from all parties some pointed questions about this issue?
First published in Times of Israel blogs.