Knesset is a democratic body

A month ago, the Knesset enacted a law to counter the harm being visited upon Israel - including the West Bank - by those who call for a boycott of its academic, economic and cultural institutions. The legislation does not "criminalise" boycotters - no such person will be guilty of a criminal offence, at least insofar as this particular enactment is concerned. But such persons are henceforth rendered liable to pay damages if they are successfully sued in a civil court.

The passage of the anti-boycott law triggered a great deal of noxious misinformation. It was, for example, deemed "anti-democratic" even though it was approved by a democratically elected legislature.

It was condemned as an assault upon freedom of expression. But Israelis are as free to call for boycotts now as they were a month ago, with (I admit) the proviso that henceforth they must think more carefully about the harm that they might inflict upon fellow citizens before they do so.

If you believe that the anti-boycott law infringes freedom of expression you might as well argue that we Brits do not enjoy freedom of expression because the Westminster parliament has in its wisdom enacted laws against defamation.

I can call you what I like (and vice-versa, of course) but, if you feel you have been slandered or libelled, you can bring a civil suit against me. Strictly speaking, therefore, the British laws against defamation constitute multiple assaults upon freedom of expression.

The primacy of Hebrew is surely as appropriate in Israel as Arabic is in Saudi Arabia

But, as I have argued before in this column, freedom is not the same thing as licence. If I say something about you that cannot on the face of it be justified, and especially if you suffer economic or reputational loss as a result, you can sue me. Every civilised country that I know of gives you such a right.

As a matter of fact, the new anti-boycott law was probably, in the narrowest of legal senses, unnecessary. Israeli jurists tell me that, in all probability, the right to bring a civil action against someone calling for a boycott and to recover damages was already enshrined in Israeli law.

In that sense, what was passed by the Knesset has merely made explicit that which was previously implicit.

If so, so much the better. In this connection, I should add that, while it is true that few democracies have such an unequivocal law as the one that the Knesset passed a month ago, most have, within living memory, enacted other legislation that covers much the same ground.

If you don't believe me, take a moment to read online the text of the UK's Treachery Act of 1940.

In the media fog created by those who got themselves steamed up over last month's decision of the Knesset to empower those who suffer from the activities of boycotters, the underlying significance of the legislation was missed.

And now we are likely to experience a similarly contrived fog as a result of another bill before the Knesset.

Last week, some 40 MKs, from both government and opposition parties, signalled their support for a private member's bill that seeks to underpin the Jewish character of the Jewish state.

For example, it would, if enacted, modify the current law (dating from the days of the Mandate) which gives parity of status to Arabic, English and Hebrew. Under the proposed law, Hebrew will be Israel's only official language, though Arabic will continue to enjoy a special status.

I don't pretend to like every clause of this bill, but that relating to the language of the state seems quite unproblematic.

Israel is the Jewish state and while ethnic minorities must be protected (as the drafters of this bill commendably seek to do), the primacy of Hebrew is surely as appropriate in Israel as is that of Norwegian in Norway or Arabic in Saudi Arabia.

More controversially, I suspect, the new bill calls upon the state of Israel to act "to ingather the exiles of Israel and assist Jewish settlement within it".

This clause must be read in conjunction with the anti-boycott Act, which now gives equality of legal standing and protection (in respect of boycott) both to the territories allotted to Israel under the 1949 armistice agreements and to the West Bank areas that were liberated in 1967.

And that, after all, is the crucial significance of the legislation enacted by the Knesset a month ago.

    Last updated: 3:45pm, August 12 2011