Abuse of freedom is not freedom

The Knesset decision to outlaw boycott from within is not a strike against freedom but a blow for it


Last week, the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill aimed at curbing the activities of citizens of the Jewish state who advocate economic or academic boycotts against it. The bill has been jointly sponsored by Knesset members Zeev Elkin (Likud) and Dalia Itzik (Kadima). It therefore enjoys support across much of Israel's political spectrum - a rare occurrence - and its preliminary reading was approved virtually unanimously - an even rarer occurrence.

Were the bill to become law, an Israeli citizen, or group of citizens, would be empowered to pursue a civil claim for damages against the organiser of any boycott, or any party supporting a boycott. As the draft now stands, the maximum sum that could be recovered in this way would be limited to NIS 30,000 - around £5,000. This is hardly a vast amount but of course the quantum of the damages that would be recoverable is not the point.

The point is that Israeli society has become increasingly frustrated with those of its citizens who encourage, aid, abet and indeed initiate hostile acts against it, while continuing to enjoy its protection and the privileges - including the freedoms of speech and assembly - that such protection confers.

Under ordinary circumstances, my sympathies would be with the targets of this proposed legislation, and I would use the freedom this column gives me to point out, yet again, that freedom of expression means nothing unless it protects those with whose views I disagree. Under ordinary circumstances, my defence of academic freedom would be well nigh absolute. I would happily mount the JC's rostrum in order to say that an academic should be able to say more or less anything that is short of genuine incitement to actual violence.

This is an attempt to destroy Israeli democracy from the outside

But these circumstances are far from ordinary. For some years, a worldwide campaign has been running to promote "BDS" - the Boycott of Israeli goods and services, Divestment from it and Sanctions against it. As a crusade, BDS has certainly had its victorious moments, not least within sections of the British trade-union movement, but it has not been spectacularly successful. Not a single reputable European or American university has boycotted Israeli academia. Further, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently decided to admit Israel as a full member in spite of the best efforts of BDS crusaders.

This lack of success has no doubt led to increasing frustration among those - including a small but vociferous coterie of Israelis - who espouse the BDS cause. Writing in the Observer earlier this month, Dr Neve Gordon of the Ben-Gurion University, whom that newspaper described as "a prominent Israeli academic supporting a boycott and sanctions against Israel", attempted to mount a defence of himself and his allies by explaining that, "BDS is not a principle but a strategy; it is not against Israel but against Israeli policy; when the policy changes, BDS will end."

We need to understand what is going on here - nothing less than an attempt to undermine and destroy Israeli democracy from the outside. To change particular policies of the democratically elected government of Israel by inciting an economic and cultural war against it. Dr Gordon and his associates demand the academic freedom to engage in this incitement but what is being incited would, if successful, result in the denial of academic freedom to others; more specifically, the freedom to engage in scholarly discourse and dialogue.

From time to time, it has been put to me that, as a champion of academic freedom, I should support without question the right of academics such as Dr Gordon to promote BDS, whether or not I happen to agree with their views. But I have to confess that I am finding it increasingly difficult to sustain this argument. Israel is at war. What support, I wonder, would there have been for British academics who, during the Second World War, might have been minded to campaign for BDS against Britain and an accommodation with Nazi Germany?

The bill currently before the Knesset is hardly an attack on academic freedom. But if Dr Gordon and his associates really find that it cramps their style, I suggest that they seek employment in the British university sector. I might even be prepared to support their applications.

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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