This article is against the law. To be more precise: It includes a call for boycotting the products of West Bank settlements, a call that will be illegal in Israel as soon as legislation just approved by the Knesset is published in the official gazette and takes effect. That's normally a matter of a couple of days, perhaps a week.
The Prohibition on Instituting a Boycott Act was submitted by Zeev Elkin -- a West Bank settler and Likud politician who chairs the ruling coalition in Israel's parliament. On Monday night, the Knesset passed the Boycott Act on a straight party-line vote, with the 47 members of the coalition and a far-right opposition party voting in favor, and the 38 members of center and left-wing opposition parties voting against.
Under the law, publicly calling for an "economic, academic or cultural" boycott of "the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control" is a "civil tort." That is, publicly organizing or even supporting a boycott is grounds for the boycott's target to file a civil suit, and for a court to award punitive damages even if the plaintiff doesn't prove actual financial harm. Promoting a boycott isn't a criminal act, but it's definitely an illegal one, and the Knesset has made civil lawsuits the method of punishment. (My thanks to leading Israeli legal commentator Moshe Negbi and to Georgetown University law professor David Luban for parsing the law.)
The phrase in the law referring to "an area under [Israel's] control" is a very thinly-veiled reference to the West Bank. The phrase is there to outlaw boycotts of Israeli settlements in occupied territory. The legislation bans promoting a boycott of a specific settlement product -- say, wine from ex-terrorist Menachem Livni's vineyard near Hebron -- or of everything produced in settlement farms and industry. If the Israeli actors who publicly refused last year to appear on the stage in the new theater in the settlement of Ariel stick to their position, they too may face legal action.
This is a pernicious law. The future of the West Bank and of the Israeli settlements in that territory is Israel's single most important political issue. The Boycott Act attacks one form of free expression used by citizens to take a stand on that question. The act also attacks the right to organize, and the right of citizens to act as free agents economically. Defining the supposed offense as a civil tort does not soften the blow. Individual settlers, settlement organizations and local governments can file suit against opponents, keep them tied up in court for years, and punish them with legal costs even before a verdict.
The law, however, has already had effects totally unexpected by Elkin and its other overreaching backers. It has focused public attention on boycotting settlements. It has forced centrist politicians who do not themselves support the tactic to defend other Israelis' right to use it. And it has pushed groups and individuals who had have avoided buying settlement products in a low-key fashion in the past to promote a boycott explicitly. The day after the bill passed, thousands of people joined the Peace Now movements's Facebook campaign to boycott settlements. To remain quiet right now is to wonder if you've surrendered to fear.
To remove doubt, I'm among the label-checkers. If I know that a bottle of olive oil or a box of crackers comes from a settlement, I don't buy it. I encourage my friends not to. I've urged my synagogue in Jerusalem not to. I'm merely being more public now.
And to avoid any misunderstanding, I should stress that I oppose boycotts of Israel as a country. Aimed that widely, the boycott tactic is morally and practically mistaken. In politics, as elsewhere, the medium is the message. Boycotts and sanctions aimed at Israel as a whole convey a message that the country's very existence is the problem. Aimed at military suppliers, they imply that Israel has no legitimate need to defend itself. Politically, those methods create a siege mood that encourages Israelis to put aside their own criticisms of their government. The academic and cultural boycott popular among some faculty-room radicals abroad is particularly foolish, targeting precisely those sectors of Israeli society that have done the most to raise questions about the occupation. But if there's anything more ill-considered than such shotgun boycott campaigns, it's the idea that the Knesset can legislate them out of existence.
The boycott of settlement products, on the other hand, is precisely aimed. The settlement enterprise in occupied territory is a 44-year-long affront to Israeli democracy and the rule of law. Settlements are intended as faits accomplis constricting the ability of the government and parliament to decide to withdraw from occupied territory in the future. They have been erected in knowing violation of international law and often in violation of Israeli law. The message of boycotting settlement products is that there is a distinction between Israel and the settlements, between a legitimate state and the settlement enterprise that undermines it.
In seeking to outlaw such dissent, the Knesset majority has carried out a classic abuse of power. This is part of a pattern. The current ruling coalition has mounted a legislative offensive against democratic norms. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu absented himself from the Knesset vote on the Boycott Act, but his government endorsed it and his party was the moving force behind it. As Netanyahu stated explicitly on Tuesday, "If I hadn't backed it, it wouldn't have passed." Had he wanted to, Netanyahu could have put the boycott bill on hold indefinitely. Instead he allowed the vote to take place and avoided taking part. In visits to America, Netanyahu likes to speak of common values and of the democratic rights that are protected in Israel. This week he revealed his real attitude toward those rights.
Israeli human rights groups have already filed suit to challenge the Boycott Act before the Supreme Court. There's a strong chance that the court will overturn it, showing that there's more to democracy than the dictatorship of the parliamentary majority.
If the law stands, a war of attrition is likely to follow. Settlement supporters will try to wear down boycott advocates with legal costs and damage awards. They'll fail, though. There will be more "illegal" articles and advertisements, talk-show interviews and social-media pages than the lawyers of silence can possibly challenge. Many, many more.
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