The increasingly progressive Atlantic Monthly correspondent and former Forward staffer Jeffrey Goldberg (for the last time, no, we’re not the same person) posted a link on his blog Tuesday to an online essay — which he called “hard to disagree with” — by senior research fellow Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine. Here’s the excerpt Goldberg posted on his blog:
The anti-boycott law isn’t about protecting Israel from boycotts that target the country in general, because basically these don’t exist in reality. It’s about protecting the settlers from boycotts of settlement goods, a movement that is very real and growing, especially in Europe. But the anti-boycott law is only the tip of the iceberg in a profoundly anti-democratic shift in Israeli political attitudes. This is partly a consequence of a siege mentality, but it also has a great deal to do with demographic shifts among the Jewish population.
The large Russian immigrant community is better organized than ever, and the extreme religious community is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of Israeli society. Both constituencies are pushing Israel toward a new form of authoritarianism, within Jewish society.
For the record, I’ve been writing about this Israeli demographic shift for a couple of years now: (Here and here with numbers on the overall demographic trend; here, here and here on the way it’s affecting the army and the alarm within the General Staff over the topic.) Up to now the issue hasn’t much entered the public discourse in this country, partly because it’s obscure and rarely hits the front pages in Israel; partly, too, because it touches on some pretty radioactive Jewish sensibilities. It seems like it’s taken the Boycott Law and the larger debate over anti-democratic legislation (here is a pretty sharply framed Haaretz piece on the trend) to put it on the agenda here.
Given the widespread protests over Israel’s newly enacted anti-boycott laws, a great many friends of Israel are wondering aloud why the fuss — specifically, why is this law treyf while the anti-boycott measures passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 have not aroused all these protests? Why is this anti-boycott law different from all other anti-boycott laws?
The answer is one of those embarrassing points that’s elusive when you’re looking for it but glaringly obvious once you see it. The U.S. measures (officially known as the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act — detailed at this Department of Commerce website) prohibit compliance with official boycotts declared by foreign governments that contravene U.S. policy. The Israeli law prohibits advocacy of boycotts against certain Israeli entities.
In other words, the American version targets action, while the Israeli law targets speech. Outlawing speech, any speech (or writing or other public expression), except in the most extreme cases of immediate threat to human life, is one of the most fundamental no-nos in Western democratic human rights theory.
The types of boycotts targeted by the new Israeli law can include official boycotts of Israel by Arab governments, but in practice most of them will be private initiatives by Israeli individuals or organizations, since most outside foreign boycott advocates will be beyond the reach of Israeli courts; in any case, the backers of the new law have made it plain that mostly they are aiming at Israeli entities.
The most controversial part of the law is not advocacy of boycotts against Israel, but against the settlements. Opposition to Jewish/Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank — on grounds that they are impediments to a territorial compromise between Israel and a future Palestine — is quite widespread in Israel. In fact, it could be said to be the fundamental dividing line in Israel’s very divided body politic today. This law is an effort by one side in Israel’s main political debate to silence the other side. One may speak against the settlements (so far) but one may not do anything about it, however non-violent.
Boycotting an entity to express one’s opposition is an old and honored tradition in Western politics. Think of the boycotts by American liberals of California grapes, Coors beer and a host of other union-busting industries, or by American conservatives of Disney and Procter & Gamble for allowing same-sex partner benefits. Think of the recent effort by pro-Israel activists to target Delta Airlines for its agreement with Saudi Arabia. All of them perfectly legal, legitimate and respectable, whatever one thinks of the political issue behind the boycott.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, flush from its victory in the boycott law debate, plans to bring another gag-rule bill to the Knesset floor for final vote next week, Ynet reports. The bill would create a Knesset investigative committee to examine the funding of “leftist” NGOs that “delegitimize” the Israeli army. Members of the Likud are trying to convince the party to hold off to let the passions over the boycott law cool down, but so far Yisrael Beiteinu is adamant, Ynet reports.
The Anti-Defamation League, by the way, became the first major national Jewish organization to criticize the boycott law. ADL issued a public statement today saying it is “concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.” Also on record: the smaller but feistier Labor Zionist organization Ameinu, which called the bill “merely the latest round of the battle that the current government of Israel is waging against the democratic foundations of the State of Israel.”
A Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, Alex Miller, appears to be the first individual to sue under the boycott law, the Jerusalem Post reports. He announced today that he plans to sue lawmaker Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List for a one-minute speech Tibi made to the Knesset Tuesday morning in which he protested the new law and said his party “calls on the public to break this law, boycott settlements, their products, and Ariel, take apart Ariel and send away its residents. They have no right to live on occupied land.” Does parliamentary immunity figure in here? Does Miller care?
Miller lives in Ariel, a city of 30,000 that sits, unlike most other urban settlement blocs, deep in the heart of the West Bank, providing the biggest single headache to negotiators drawing maps of prospective Israeli-Palestinian compromise.
The final vote was 47 to 38, according to the Haaretz.com report.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not present for the debate or vote. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin was present but did not vote. Ehud Barak’s five-member Atzmaut caucus stayed away after informing the coalition that it could not support the legislation. Netanyahu was reported over the weekend to be considering putting off the vote by a week, after intellilgence affairs minister Dan Meridor warned that passing it on the same day that the Quartet foreign ministers were meeting in Washington would cause diplomatic damage. The Quartet is meeting today to discuss ways to prevent a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the United Nations this fall.
The bill outlaws economic, academic or cultural boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions in Israel or in territories under Israeli control (that last in acknowledgment of the fact that according to Israeli law, the areas of Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, are not within the State of Israel). Initiators of such boycotts are subject to civil damages that may be recovered by the target of the boycott, without connection to any actual financial damage that may have been incurred.
More from the Haaretz.com report: