Of Parties and NGOs
“NGOs clearly benefit from the widely accepted notion that they represent ‘civil society,’ yet both private businesses and democratic social movements will dispute the notion. Just who benefits from that assumption is clear, but it is critical to point again to who loses: those social movements and political formations out to challenge and transform the fundamentals of economic and political power.… By limiting discussion and education to narrow issues, NGOs and NGO funding often constrain political partisan/electoral involvement. Illusions of influence notwithstanding, the result of much NGO activity in the South is demobilization and disempowerment.” (Cf. www.irc-online.org/content/bulletin/bull51.php My emphasis – RBE.)
Parties and NPAs in Israel
Before proceeding, we should note that in Israel, in order to be recognized as a political party, one must be registered to participate in elections; one must meet criteria specified by law. ODA has met these criteria; it is a legal political party in Israel.
Severe limits are placed on political parties, but NPAs can include a wide variety of organizations and movements. Unlike political parties, they can finance activities to benefit the publics they serve. There are no legal limits on the amounts they may raise to accomplish their goals, whether from individuals or groups. The sole requirement is transparency: an NPA must be able to show that the money it raised indeed went to its declared purposes.
In contrast, political parties are severely restricted in the amounts they may raise from donors. The lack of cash is keenly felt during election campaigns. Party leaders may try to get around these limits by establishing fictive NPAs or by exploiting existing ones. For example, in the 1999 elections, Ehud Barak’s group was accused of creating fictive NPAs to serve as a pipeline for funds to his campaign. (Barak has gotten off the hook, at least for now, by claiming he knew nothing about it. Two of his associates are still under investigation.)
Over against this negative example, however, stand many instances of NPAs that were established by political parties in order to serve their constituencies. For example: Shas, the ultra-orthodox Mizrahi party, has an NPA known as el ha-Ma’ayan (“To the Source,” in the sense of spring or fountainhead). Shas members founded el ha-Ma’ayan, which has established a ramified infrastructure of religious education and welfare. The institutions of el ha-Ma’ayan receive bountiful funding from the state, as well as from other donors. Shas and its NPA flourished in the 1990’s, as the poor, growing poorer, became fed up with the two major political parties. The lack of a convincing secular alternative helped Shas to gain strength. The ideological identification between the activists of el ha-Ma’ayan and Shas is absolute. No one has ever taken that as a reason to dissolve el ha-Ma’ayan, as long as four conditions are fulfilled:
- El ha-Ma’ayan harbors no personal corruption.
- Its officials may not deny services to anyone who wants them, as long as the person obeys the rules of membership.
- The officials have no right to deny services to members who do not support Shas.
- El ha-Ma’ayan must not transfer to Shas any funds it has raised.
As long as these conditions are met, it is nobody’s business whether Shas gains supporters among the population served by el ha-Ma’ayan.
The connection between WAC and ODA
Despite the vast difference between Shas-el ha-Ma’ayan and ODA-WAC, there is the same kind of connection between party and NPA, based on similar principles. ODA was established when the Israeli Left, as well as the Arab parties, supported the Oslo agreements. It was necessary to speak out against Oslo and expose its consequences for the future of the Palestinians and the prospects of a just peace. In election broadcasts during the 1996 campaign, ODA was unique on the Left in criticizing Oslo.
The Left and the Arab parties also failed to see the dangers that globalization and privatization posed for workers, especially in the Arab sector. While the Jewish sector flourished during the 90’s, many Arabs lost their jobs. The textile firms, which employed Arab women, shut their doors here, moving to Jordan, Egypt and East Asia. In construction, the importation of cheap, unorganized migrant labor enabled contractors to dismiss some 35,000 Arab workers.
In their first campaign platform (1996), the founders of ODA wrote as follows: “The focus of our organization’s activity is the working class, and most of the actions of the organization and its members are directed to defending those sectors of the working class that suffer most from discrimination, such as the textile and the construction workers.”
The establishment of WAC, then, was not a ploy, not the result of some “hidden purpose” (the Registrar’s words). Out of responsibility for the most exploited sectors in the society, the members of ODA decided that the only solution for the workers was to organize. For the thousands tossed to the sidelines, WAC became an address they could turn to.
WAC was created to care for workers: to help them find jobs and protect their rights. It does more than just provide services, however. It builds up working-class consciousness and educates its members to take charge of their situation. (Having certain characteristics of a labor union, WAC departs somewhat from the structure typical to NGOs.) Its closure would eliminate the only organization that has managed to place the needs of Arab workers on the public agenda in Israel.
ODA, for its part, was created to represent the working-class public on the political plane. To keep ODA members from taking part in WAC would be to keep them from working for the population they wish to support.
The two organizations, then, complement each other: ODA provides WAC with a political horizon, and WAC provides ODA members with a chance to apply their ideas in day-to-day social activity.
As ODA made clear in its election broadcasts of 2003, it stands for the interests of the working class, no matter whether the particular worker is socialist, Islamic or other. If some workers adopt a socialist perspective, the gates of the party will be open to them. As for those who do not, they remain a public without representation and in need of organization. The gates of WAC will be open to them.