Concerns raised about Israel's anti-boycott law

New Israeli law intended to stop boycotters from entering the country could block Jewish visitors


A law passed by the Knesset on Monday that is intended to deny entry to foreign citizens who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements — or have connections to groups that have done so — has sparked deep concern in the diaspora.

The law targets those who work for or belong to organisations that support boycotts. It could have a particular impact on student, union or MP delegations to Israel.

Trade Union Friends of Israel expressed its worries: “We are concerned that pro-Israel trade unionists would be prevented from entering Israel because their national union supports BDS.”

And Hannah Sharron, a spokesperson for the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), said: “Jewish students who visit Israel regularly could be turned away if they have any association with the NUS [National Union of Students, which has joined the BDS movement] or a university with a BDS policy.

“Student leaders who visit Israel to see what’s going on and learn about what’s close to the heart of so many people and want to educate themselves may be turned away. The new law has a real potential to cause chaos and prevent education.” 
UJS organises group visits to Israel, including two forthcoming trips in the early summer, one for political activists and another for student leaders. Ms Sharron said it was too soon to know whether these would be affected by the new law. 

Communal bodies also expressed their opposition to the law. The Board of Deputies said: “We oppose boycotts tirelessly, and understand Israel’s desire to come down hard on those extremists who target Israel unfairly. But due to the indiscriminate nature of this legislation, we doubt whether it will be helpful in the fight against the haters.”

And Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said the law “undermines the cherished value of free speech, which is so essential in a democracy. We need to seek urgent clarification from the embassy because the risk is that enforcement of this law will provide ammunition to our enemies and make the battle against BDS in the UK so much more difficult.”

Mainstream US organisations such as the American Jewish Committee and ADL also condemned the law.

Pro-Israel Jews who have spoken out against Israel’s policies in the West Bank now fear they may experience difficulties when trying to enter the country. Emeritus Rabbi David Goldberg, of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, who has always been critical of Israel’s settlements policy, said he wondered “if it will affect me personally when I go to Israel in May”.

“This looks like the kind of legislation that Donald Trump might think up,” he added.

Jewish-American writer Peter Beinart, who supports boycotting the settlements, wrote: “It seems the Knesset wants me to choose. Either stop visiting Israel or stop opposing the occupation… Embrace Israel at the cost of your principles or embrace your principles at the cost of Israel.”

The law, which passed in its third and final reading 46-28, was opposed not only by the left-wing Meretz and Joint List parties but by the centre-left Zionist Union, even though some of the party’s MKs had initially supported the measure on its first reading, and many of them abstained or were absent on Monday.

Roy Folkman, an MK of centre-right Kulanu, who was one of the sponsors of the bill, said after the vote it was not an attempt to suppress debate or human rights and that “you can believe in human rights and also defend Israel’s good name”.

Joint List Leader Ayman Odeh, who opposed the law, said that it would target also “thousands of Jews who support a boycott of the settlements. People who are not against the state but against the occupation”.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky,  Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships, said: “The vagueness of the law is worrying as it makes it subject to abuse, and also means we are already seeing people asking questions about their ability to travel to Israel if they have ever publicly criticised the settlements. 

“This new Knesset travel ban goes against all the values we preserve as Liberal Jews...As a Movement we have never supported BDS and have spoken often about the ways it can be used to delegitimise the State of Israel. Nevertheless this law does not tackle BDS. Rather, it has the potential to increase support for their cause.”

Tony Klug, a special adviser on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a critic of the occupation, said: “I know people who go to Israel fairly often to see family who are strongly against the occupation who may find that when they arrive at the border they are debarred, which is absolutely shocking.”

Hannah Weisfeld, director of the pro-peace advocacy group, Yachad, said the Israeli government was shooting itself in the foot. “Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the BDS movement, legislating against people’s right to use boycott as a form of protest is problematic. There are very mixed opinions among the Jewish community around the settlements in particular. I worry this could open a diplomatic crisis between Israel and the wider Jewish community.”

Another law passed on Monday with the support of the coalition will prevent the return of Israeli citizens suspected of taking part in terror activities abroad.

Interior Minister Arye Deri said that the law would “close a loophole through which Israeli citizens who have left the country to fight with the enemy, particularly Daesh, can return to Israel as if nothing has happened”.

Under the new law, the government can hold hearings on revoking the citizenship of these terror suspects and deny them the right to return to Israel to attend these hearings.

Opposition MKs who voted against the law argued it was unnecessary as terror suspects can be arrested upon return and be allowed to attend their hearings while in custody.

With additional reporting by Anshel Pfeffer and Isabel de Bertodano

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