For many years now, Israel has boasted about being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” It has never been a democracy: it has systematically discriminated against its non-Jewish citizens (for example, it was only this week that Arab villages gained access to public transit), and in order to support the racial purity laws indirectly, it granted clerics control over all aspects of personal life. It permits the existence of courts where women are inherently inferior to men and their testimony is inadmissible. There is no law in Israel that guarantees the freedom of speech, which relies only on Supreme Court decisions, and the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty intentionally left out the right to equality. Israel has never pretended that all its citizens are equal….
Concurrently, the first of three readings of a proposed law voted in a prohibition on calling for a boycott of Israel. As has happened a lot recently, this proposed law defines the West Bank as part of Israel-proper, which has far reaching significance.
Taking a look at the MKs who propose the law, we see quite a long list of the center-right mainstream, from Dalia Itzik, former Speaker of the Knesset and the most prominent MK on the list, to ultra-orthodox Moshe Gaffny. That last name is something of a surprise: the ultra-orthodox are the most active boycotters in Israel. That’s alright, though: the law states (at the end of its preamble) that “the balance between the public good and the best interest of the state and individual liberties is expressed by limiting the definition of the considerations of the individual who sets out to purchase a product or service as a boycott under this law.” In other words, if you boycott a particular company because it is cruel to animals, or because your rabbi told you to boycott it, or because your conscience won’t let you uphold the way it uses anorexia-promoting models in its ads, or because it uses slave labor – that would be fine. Only a boycott protesting the existence of the Israeli occupation is prohibited.
The law forbids Israeli citizens to promote, encourage, or provide information which makes it possible to maintain a boycott of “Israel” – in other words, the Israeli occupation and the persons benefitting from it. It makes possible automatic damages and fines. It makes possible, and in fact requires action against any “foreign national entity” – which would be the Palestinian Authority – if it harms the settlers’ livelihood. The most interesting item here is Section 8(ii): “Despite the content of subsection (i), any person who initiated a boycott or encouraged participation in a boycott under paragraph 2 during the year preceding the publication of the Law, it will be a refutable assumption that this person is still an initiator of a boycott or still calls for a boycott even after the date of the publication of the Law.” In other words, in contrast with nearly all the laws of the State of Israel, this law is a retroactive law, which will penalize people for actions they took before it was made into law. The settlers and the settler collaborators must be quite stressed out.
The proposed law prohibits non-violent protests and determines that it will be legal to boycott anything in Israel – which is how they obtained ultra-orthodox support – except for settlers and the occupation. That is pretty much the only case where non-violent protest is prohibited. Former Haaretz editor David Landau has already called other parliaments to boycott the Knesset due to this law. If it passes, it will be very hard to denounce people who employ violence against the occupation, its emblems and the people who enforce it. After all, they will have been barred from non-violent forms of protest.
The preamble to the law makes the claim that an American law prohibits boycotting of Israel and of other friendly states, and that it behooves Israel to be at least as vigilant as other states. But that is not exactly right: the law prohibiting boycotts, which is actually an amendment to the U.S. code of export regulations – does not prevent any citizens or corporations from boycotting anything, including Israel. It forbids their participation in a boycott organized by a foreign government. In other words, if we were to create an Israeli equivalent, it would forbid Israelis to participate in the boycott organized by the Palestinian Authority, against Israeli products (although it is doubtful that the Knesset has or even wants authority over the West Bank), but it would not prevent their organizing such a boycott on their own, as it is their right to do so, as sovereign citizens who do not wish to support an unjust policy of their government.
This law, however, has little to do with appropriate conduct. It is a law that chills speech and imposes fear; it is designed to turn opponents of the regime into enemies of the state, people who by even expressing their opinion become the legitimate targets of any Jew in Yitzhar, who can peel ₪ 30,000 right off of them without having to prove that damage has been done to him. The courts may well knock down this law, and it certainly has a long way to go in Knesset committees. The good news is that if it does indeed pass, it will significantly enhance the chances of many Israelis to obtain political asylum visas in many countries, because it will remove Israel from the list of democratic countries in an absolute and final manner.
The average Israeli will not, of course, understand why. Nor will he ever understand.
Editor’s note: for a few hours this piece carried the wrong byline. Apologies to Yossi Gurvitz!