Backlash as Israel gags boycotters

Freedom of speech in danger, say critics

By SImon Rocker and Anshel Pfeffer, July 14, 2011
A Israeli protester against the new law. Her sign reads: “There is no free market when it’s inconvenient for Bibi”

A Israeli protester against the new law. Her sign reads: “There is no free market when it’s inconvenient for Bibi”

Israel provoked a storm of criticism across the Jewish world this week after passing a law which enables legal action to be taken against anyone calling for boycotts of the country, including settlements in the West Bank.

The measure instantly began to bite as Peace Now was sued in an Israeli court after it renewed its campaign to boycott settler-produced goods, in defiance of the new law.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was absent from the vote, right-wing members of his coalition forced through the move, which allows the targets of boycott campaigns to sue for damages. Organisations advocating boycotts of West Bank settlements, such as theatre groups which refuse to perform there, are also disqualified from receiving government funds.

Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, criticised the law. He said: "We are concerned with the ratification of a law that harms the legitimacy of freedom of speech and is against the strong Israeli tradition of vibrant and energetic political debate."

While left-wing Israeli groups denounced the law - with one petitioning the Supreme Court to have it ruled unconstitutional - even more centrist organisations, such as NGO Monitor, saw it as counterproductive.

'Law may impinge on basic democratic rights'

Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, one of American Jewry's major organisations, called it "a sad day for Israeli democracy", worrying that the law "may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression".

The law's proposer, Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin, who is chairman of Israel's ruling coalition, explained that its aim was "not to silence people but to defend Israeli citizens".

If Israel did "not act to protect its own citizens from an internal boycott", he said, "how can we morally ask our friends in other countries to fight boycotts of Israel?"

But anti-boycott campaigners in the UK rounded on the new law. Ronnie Fraser of Academic Friends of Israel said it "will make it more difficult to argue that Israel is an open democratic society with few restrictions on debate. Once again the Israeli government has failed to understand the problems for pro-Israeli activists in the diaspora."

David Hirsh, editor of the website Engage, which counters antisemitism and anti-Zionism in the academic world, said: "The boycott campaign treats Israel as though it was no more legitimate than the settlements in the occupied territories.  The new law shares this assumption… Instead of driving a wedge between the peace camp and the boycotters, the new law pushes the peace camp into the arms of the boycotters."

Lorna Fitzsimons, chief executive of the Israel advocacy group Bicom, said that it was "not news that parliaments sometimes commit regressive, regrettable and self- defeating actions". Noting Israel's "robustly independent" courts, she added: "What is most important is the presence of the balancing institutions of a free judiciary, open to all, and a free press there to act."

But the new law was called a "victory for Israel" by the recently launched British Israel Coalition, while Zionist Federation joint vice-chairman Jonathan Hoffman commented that it was "hardly surprising given that the boycott represents an existential threat to Israel. Other democracies faced with existential threats have also resorted to measures which curtail normal freedoms." 

Last updated: 4:03pm, July 15 2011