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Crowdfunding shines a light on Israeli politicians

Posted: Nov. 30, 2015 | Tags: Transparency


Photo courtesy Tomer Avital and "Bar Siach"

Tomer Avital shares the work of “100 Days of Transparency” with young Israelis at a Tel Aviv Bar. These gatherings of scholars and activists discussing issues in a light environment are common in Israel.

With the 2016 presidential campaign in full swing, the issues of scrutiny and transparency are again center-stage.

Super PACs, other sources of election money, missing emails and questionable use of emails and ties to Wall Street continue to be part of the nonstop journalistic scrutiny that includes examinations of whether candidates and their campaigns are as transparent as they should be.  

And while American reporters push for ever-more candor and transparency, people in other nations look at the U.S. system as an example of transparency.

One person who does so is Israeli journalist-turned-activist Tomer Avital. For more than a year, Avital, 32, has been the driving force behind the project “100 Days of Transparency,” designed to promote transparent legislation in Israel and to uncover information that could influence public opinion about elected officials.

In an interview in Hebrew, conducted before he spoke recently with a group of young Jewish professionals in Bethesda, Maryland, Avital explained what drove him to take the leap from investigative journalism to what he calls journalism-activism. 

“I was tired of the way politicians regarded the media, when they kept answering questions with ‘no comment,'” he said. Speaking hypothetically, Avital said that if he had a source saying that a parliament member’s travel is paid by a wealthy mogul, the parliament member is not obligated to disclose the information, which is easily kept from the public. 

"So I wanted to change that, and my idea was to do it with the public," he said. "That is why I turned to crowdfunding. So a day after I left my last work place, I placed an ad on Headstart asking for 100,000 Israeli Shekels (about $25,000) and I promised to use the money to lean on politicians who object to transparency in legislation and to promote bills that will assure transparency."

Avital surpassed his goal and raised 160,000 Israeli Shekels.

While some Israeli politicians resent Avital for his actions and accuse him of dealing in gossip, Avital argues that nothing that bears a relation to policymaking, which shapes Israeli lives, could be referred to as gossip. The project focuses on politicians’ finances, assets, ties and schedule; no issue is off the table, and all legal means are in play, including using private investigators.

“I want to know who they met with, what policy paper they received. I want to have their financial statements, including stocks. It’s absurd. In the United States, it is all transparent," he said. "I want to know about their ties with business tycoons and corporations. And let me say, it is OK if those ties exists. I understand they don’t come into politics with a blank slate and their son might be working for Yitzhak Tshuva (Israeli business magnate). But I want to know that before the elections.”

“I was tired of the way politicians regarded the media, when they kept answering questions with ‘no comment’ ”

— Tomer Avital,
"100 Days of Transparency"

Avital has been a journalist for more than a decade, working at local and national Israeli outlets. He covered the Israeli Parliament, The Knesset, for four years, an experience that also helped him in publishing his first novel — a thriller anchored around a murder mystery inside the Israeli legislature. Later he was also an investigative journalist for Uvda, Israel’s top investigative news television program.

“100 Days of Transparency” operates in the open, with the project’s budget, receipts and names of its almost 1,500 Headstart backers and other donors all published online (in Hebrew).

“Something very positive that I noticed was that every time I publish something good, more contributions are being made,” he said. “This means people are actively searching for us looking to contribute. I also have returning contributors. Not many, but still.”

Avital not only asks the public for funding but also calls on Israelis to act. One of his projects is called “The Transparency Force,” in which volunteers are asked to take photos of politicians and whoever they meet with in cafes, restaurants and public places.

Volunteers are asked only to take photos, not to approach, disturb or eavesdrop. Volunteers are also asked to phone Israeli ministers and ask them to reveal their votes in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which is where the government’s legislative agenda is de-facto being set.

Avital is realistic about the project’s goals and says he focuses more on raising public awareness, given that the prime minister himself had blocked a few of the initiatives. After the first year of the project, Avital asked his contributors for a small compensation. He posted a request in his newsletter and on the website, asking to receive a little more than 20,000 Israeli Shekels (between $5,000 and $6,000). He said that without a major source of funding, he won’t be able to continue what he is doing for much longer.

Transparency alone is not Avital’s goal; he knows most people won’t check regularly on the actions of their elected officials.

“The first stage is making the information accessible. The next stage is that organizations and groups — some of them already exist — would analyze the information and share it with the public in a manner that helps us making decisions," he said.

"And the final stage to my theory," he added, "is that transparency will serve as a deterring factor. Once everything is transparent, parliament members will think twice and three times before they act.”

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