Forward Thinking

Why Is Israel's Boycott Law Different From America's?

By J.J. Goldberg

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.

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