Naomi Chazan
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
July 21, 2011 - 12:00am

July 11, 2011 was a watershed in Israel's political history. The adoption by the Knesset of "The Law to Prevent Harm to the State of Israel via Boycott" (generally known as the boycott law), makes it a compensable civil wrong to publicly encourage a boycott against the state of Israel, its institutions or any territory under its rule. This legislation conflates dissent against Israel's continued occupation of Palestinians with de-legitimization of Israel in its entirety, seriously undermines Israel's global standing and constitutes the latest--and the most severe--in a series of parliamentary blows to the country's increasingly fragile democratic order.

Boycotts are an acceptable tool of non-violent democratic action utilized broadly in struggles against oppression and injustice. They offer citizens a means to express their displeasure with anything from the price of cottage cheese to official policy directions and actions. Debates over the validity and viability of particular boycotts have traditionally focused on their specific objectives, which is precisely what makes the present legislation so objectionable. It sets out to stifle all such discussion.

The boycott law is unabashedly political both in intent and content. Although ostensibly against all boycotts, in fact it seeks to prohibit any Israeli citizen from shunning Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders and their products. This government-backed bill purposefully blurs the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. It treats the West Bank as an integral part of the state--an overt act of legal annexation. It therefore stands in direct contravention to Israel's professed support for a two-state solution and reinforces the settlement enterprise that has emerged as the key obstacle to its realization.

By effectively erasing the green line, this law goes one step further: it makes a mockery of efforts to differentiate between spurious attacks on Israel's fundamental right to exist and legitimate disagreements over the legality of settlement activities. Many of Israel's foremost critics of the ongoing occupation have vigorously opposed the call of the growing global BDS movement to refrain from all things Israeli precisely because a blanket boycott against Israel might actually delay the creation of a viable, independent, Palestinian state. Even though they have consistently refused to purchase goods or services from the settlements, these Israelis have argued repeatedly that the purpose of a total economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel is insufficiently focused and plays directly into the hands of those who believe that the whole world is against Israel, thereby reinforcing precisely those right-wing extremists who parlayed the latest anti-boycott legislation.

For these critics of the occupation, the international BDS effort has proven to be counterproductive: it weakens peace and human rights organizations that have struggled systematically against the continued Israeli presence in the territories and diverts attention from the need to find a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum. The ratification of the boycott law takes the wind out of their sails, ironically reinforcing those who advocate shunning all things Israeli.

The anti-boycott legislation, however, is much more than just an egregious attempt to muzzle open debate on the single most controversial issue on Israel's agenda; it is also anti-democratic to the core. By selectively curtailing the basic civil liberties of those who do not agree with government policies and who claim that these are antithetical to Israel's own interests, this law sanctions limiting freedom of speech, conscience and dissent and makes mincemeat of the concept of equality before the law. These intrinsic rights of citizens in democratic societies, protected in Israel's unwritten constitution, should not be jettisoned at the whim of a heuristic parliamentary constellation transformed into a band of legal vigilantes who have opened the door for anyone to sue anyone on political grounds. The thought that the ruling coalition can override basic freedoms and impose its political will on all citizens is nothing short of sanctioning the tyranny of the majority under the guise of majority rule.

No single recent act by Israel has tarnished its name more than the boycott law, which inevitably reinforces its obdurate image in the international community. It casts doubt on the credibility of Israel's desire to reach a lasting accommodation with its neighbors. It belies Israel's claim to a democratic ethos. And it threatens to sacrifice Israel's most significant strategic asset--its democracy--to opportunistic domestic political goals. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this law has been criticized by democrats from all parts of the political spectrum within Israel, by a wide variety of Jewish organizations abroad and, tellingly, not only by its detractors in the world but also by its long-time supporters in the United States and the European Union. The law is a mark of weakness that contributes directly to Israel's increased global isolation.

The boycott law is just the latest in what is nothing short of a blatant anti-democratic parliamentary offensive. Prompted by anger, trepidation and bravado that fuel a need to apportion blame for Israel's precarious global status, overly-zealous members of the ruling coalition have abused their parliamentary position in an attempt to enforce the will of the settlers and their proponents on Israel's body politic. In the process they have not only misused Israel's democracy, they have demonstrated their fundamental ignorance of its basic components.

It is not too late to reverse this deleterious trend. Israel's High Court of Justice has yet to rule on the petitions against the boycott law brought by civil society organizations; but any jury of even the strongest opponents of BDS already knows that the external, political, democratic and moral damage the law has unleashed is extensive. Only a comprehensive mind-shift can stem its consequences.


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