Commentary

Reaction to the New Israeli Boycott Ban Law

Middle East in Focus

This week, the Knesset passed a law banning boycotts. The new measure has met with fierce opposition not only from human rights organizations, but from other actors as well. Nevertheless, proponents of the law have suggested that opposing it means not standing up for Israel and its right self-defense.

Jonathan Lis of Haaretz explains, “According to the law, a person or an organization calling for the boycott of Israel, including the settlements, can be sued by the boycott's targets without having to prove that they sustained damage. The court will then decide how much compensation is to be paid. The second part of the law says a person or a company that declares a boycott of Israel or the settlements will not be able to bid in government tenders.” Lis also cites among others “ a Kadima opposition party spokesman [who] said the Netanyahu government is damaging Israel. ‘Netanyahu has crossed a red line of political foolishness today and national irresponsibility, knowing the meaning of the law and its severity, while giving in to the extreme right that is taking over the Likkud.’"

In response to the news of the passage of the law, the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz posted a series of articles on the matter, mostly critical of the measure.  Avira Golan, for example, in an op-ed pronounces the law unconstitutional and undemocratic:  “The issue is not about the settlements; the real issue is completely eradicating open political debate…. All of these new laws, all the new conditions… have one purpose only: to completely eradicate open political debate and to comprehensively delegitimize everyone who doesn't think like MKs Zeev Elkin, David Rotem, Michael Ben-Ari and their friends.... This process is crudely erasing entire entries from the democratic dictionary, and in their place — via a series of focused laws with intentionally vague wording - it is putting blatantly totalitarian values.

In another article, Jonathan Lis and Tomer Zarchin report, “Israeli leftist organizations launched Tuesday a series of protests agaist the boycott law passed in the Knesset the night before. The Gush Shalom movement took its campaign to the legal level and filed a petition to the Supreme Court claiming the boycott law is unconstitutional and anti-democratic.” However, Lis and Zarchin also cite “MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), who resides in the Ma'aleh Michmash settlement, [who] said that his he and his family ‘are not like a cottage cheese box that you can boycott.’ He added that those who oppose the law are motivated by hate for segments of Israeli society.”

The Palestinian website Maan News also cites several human rights organization’s who “say that it seriously harms freedom of expression and freedom of association and gives protection to illegal West Bank settlements by penalizing opponents. ‘The bill seeks to enforce legal protection for an illegal project,’ Hadas Ziv of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said in a statement. ‘In other words, it signals a de-jure annexation of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank,’ he added. “Defining boycott as a civil wrong suggests that all Israelis have a legal responsibility to promote the economic advancement of the settlements in the [occupied Palestinian territories]. ‘ This means that Israeli organizations opposing the settlements as a matter of principle are in a legal trap,’ Hassan Jabareen, director of the Israeli human-rights NGO Adalah said.”

Another Palestinian website, WAFA, also highlighted the effect the new law would have on freedom of expression and reported on the opposition to the law by Arab Knesset members. Among them was “Ahmed Tibi, [who] condemned the ‘racist’ law and called [for people] to boycott settlements and settlers despite the law, which undermines freedom of expression. Israeli Knesset members from the extreme right attacked Tibi and accused him of ‘supporting the enemies of Israel.’

The Jerusalem Post editorial threads a finer line in its opposition to the law calling it simply “bad” and worrying that “attempts to legitimize Jewish presence in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem through the stifling of criticism may just achieve the opposite.... MK Ze’ev Elkin was correct back in March to point out — after the Knesset plenum in a first reading ratified his government-backed ‘Boycott Bill’ — the ‘absurdity’ in Israelis supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.... While we empathize with Elkin and other lawmakers’ protective instinct vis-a-vis the Jewish state, we must, nevertheless, respectfully disagree with their proposed legislation.... Passage of Elkin’s boycott bill would restrict freedom of expression in Israeli society by singling out for censure only those who sincerely believe — no matter how misguided this belief may be — that it is in Israel’s better interest to end the ‘occupation’ no matter what the potential security risks and sacrifice demanded of those slated for evacuation.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Writing on YNet, Yoaz Hendel, for example views the law as “patriotic,” urging Israelis to support it. Hendel answers the critics of the law by posing a series of questions:  “Is there really a need to explain why the State of Israel is supposed to object to those who call for a boycott against it? Is there a need to explain why a democracy must not support or subsidize bodies that call for a domestic boycott?...Those who listen to the objectors may wrongly think that a democracy is only expected to encourage those who oppose it and call for boycotting or annihilating it. And what about a law in favor of the State? Heaven forbid; a threat to our existence. The code words are fascism and McCarthyism. Yet every time someone dares argue that the emperor has no clothes, we hear the tired clichés and slogans — and all in the name of democracy. One can object to patriotic bills, yet when it comes from the same people, on a regular basis, you should ask yourself: Where is the silencing here?”

For others, there is no denying, however, that coming at the tail end of a series of legally dubious piece of legislation catering to the religious right in Israel, the new law reflects what Carlo Strenger calls “siege mentality.” In an op-ed for The Guardian, Strenger attempts to strike a hopeful tone despite the seemingly desperate times Israel is headed for.  For him, “The flood of anti-democratic laws that were proposed, and partially implemented, by the current Knesset, elected in February 2009, constitute one of the darkest chapters in Israeli history.... The result of Netanyahu and Lieberman's systematic fanning of Israeli's existential fears is tangible in Israel.... In the long run, I think that Israel will come to its senses. The more recognition, including by the UN, a Palestinian state receives, the more Israel's political class will come to the conclusion that the price for holding on to the West Bank is too high. Until then, Israel's democracy will be beleaguered by the right, but it will survive.”

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