Jeffrey Goldberg
The Atlantic (Opinion)
July 14, 2011 - 12:00am

This is what the prime minister of the "Middle East's only democracy," Benjamin Netanyahu, said about the free-speech suppression bill that passed in the Knesset earlier this week: He said, unbelievably, that the new law doesn't taint Israeli democracy. "What stains (Israel's) image are those savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy's attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not."


The anti-boycott law, which would allow people who claim to have been financially victimized by calls for boycotts to sue those who call for such boycotts, without offering proof of damages, is obviously meant to intimidate into silence Israelis exercising their right to speak freely. I am against, of course, all calls for boycotts against Israel; I'm on the fence about calls for boycotts of settlement-made goods. But let the opponents of boycotts make their best arguments against such boycotts -- it has always been the Israeli way to fight bad ideas with better ideas. This new law is an entirely new thing -- a bullying example of the tyranny of the majority in action. I'm confident the Israeli Supreme Court will overturn this dreadful law, but until it does, might I suggest a counter-boycott, by American Jews, of Israeli politicians, up to and including the prime minister, who support the curtailing of free speech in Israel?

What I mean is this: Many of the biggest Jewish federations in America have special fundraising sub-groups organized around specific professions, including lawyers. Let's encourage these lawyers' division to write to the prime minister and tell him that, as much as they would love to have him visit and share his views with them, American lawyers -- and in particular, First Amendment lawyers, half of whom, it seems, are Jewish -- don't feel it is appropriate to honor a speaker who advocates punishing others for exercising their right to free speech.

There is wall-to-wall opposition among American Jews toward this ridiculous law, and this opposition needs to be communicated to the prime minister and to the Knesset in very clear ways, before Israel slips further down the slope away from democracy.

Oh, and by the way, I've just gotten a report that the greatest Zionist in American history, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, is, in fact, currently rolling over in his grave.

UPDATE: Good God, my inbox is filled up with stupid shit today. The stupid shit is coming in two categories: Israel-haters, welcoming me to their deranged club, and Israel-right-or-wrongers, accusing me of treason. To the Israel-haters: Criticism of a specific Israeli policy or law does not make me an Israel-hater. Sorry. One letter states, "So you're finally seeing that Israel is an apartheid state." Well, no. What I see is an Israeli prime minister not brave enough to stand up to a revanchist minority within his own party. Because I love Israel, I would like to see Netanyahu come out against laws that punish free speech. Here's another letter: "So you endorse a boycott of Netanyahu. That means you find boycotts legitimate." Okay, that one I can't even respond to, it's so dumb. Okay, here I go, responding anyway: I'm trying to make the point that it is vital for pro-Israel American Jews who care about free speech (the heavily-Jewish First Amendment bar comes to mind) to let Prime Minister Netanyahu he's wrong, why he's wrong, the consequences of being wrong, and how to fix the wrong he's done. That's all. But yes, I do think it would be odd and unseemly for a lawyers' division of a Jewish federation to honor him at this moment, given what seem to be his evolving views on free speech. It would be great if he would come to New York and meet some free-speech advocates in the pro-Israel community, so that they can give him a piece of their mind. Of course, he could do this in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

To the knee-jerk defenders of every single Likud Party policy, right or wrong: Keep on blinding yourselves. You obviously enjoy the dark. And to the person who wrote this: "Come on, you must know that Israel doesn't have a First Amendment or a Constitution that guarantees free speech," all I can say is this: Since 1948, Israel has been a besieged state that nevertheless has, with rare exceptions, defended the right of people to say whatever they have wanted to say. This is why Israel has the freest press in the world, and why Arab members of Knesset can scream down the prime minister and not get shot. Israel's defense of freedom of speech, even in wartime, is one of the many reasons to be proud of it. Let's not go spoiling this record now.


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