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On July 11, the Israeli Knesset passed a widely condemned law that bars public support for boycotting Israel and the occupied territories – in effect, making free speech a civil crime.
Under the legislation, individuals and organizations that call for or engage in an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of individuals or groups because of their ties with Israel or the occupied territories can be sued in civil court and forced to pay damages.
The bill may, in part, be a response to the growing influence of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement–launched in 2005 with the endorsement of more than 170 Palestinian groups – which aims to use these three forms of civil resistance to achieve an end to the occupation, equal rights for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees.
The law could have far-reaching effects. For instance, if a company, either Israeli or foreign, refuses to do business with another company based in illegal settlements, it can be barred from receiving government contracts. NGOs that currently benefit from nonprofit status in Israel found to violate the law – which could include a number of Israeli human rights organizations – can be stripped of their status and forced to pay taxes.
While the law ostensibly targets the growing calls for boycott, which began in 2005, the bill has received substantial criticism from opposition politicians, the mainstream Israeli media and several human rights groups within Israel for its attack on free speech. Even the European Union, the Anti-Defamation League, and the U.S. State Department have criticized the law, to varying degrees.
“It’s not about a boycott. It’s about freedom of speech – and it’s the first major crack in freedom of speech in this country. The problem is [that this is a] precipice,” said Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist and Haaretz columnist. “Today, it’s not legal to call for boycott. Tomorrow it will not be legal to criticize the army.”
The Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott may be the first explicit attack on free speech in Israel, but it is emblematic of a broader rightward shift in both policy and discourse in Israel, coming on the heels of several other legislative efforts aimed at suppressing dissent and discriminating against Palestinians.
In February, the Knesset passed a law that grants “admissions committees” discretion to accept or reject individuals seeking housing units or plots of land in the Naqab and Galilee regions, including an assessment of whether applicants are “unsuitable to the social life of the community … or the social and cultural fabric of the town.” In March, the Knesset passed a law that prevents individuals from selling land or renting property for a period of over five years to nonresidents or citizens of Israel, including Palestinian refugees and all those persons without Israeli citizenship or residency.
Also in March, the legislature approved the “Nakba law,” which allows the state to reduce funding or support for organizations that commemorate the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their land. And last October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet endorsed an amendment to the Citizenship Law, yet to be approved by the Knesset, which would require all persons seeking naturalization and Israeli citizens applying for their first ID card to pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish, Zionist, and democratic” state. The proposed loyalty oath is still under consideration.
Levy argued that these recent developments and the current political climate is a result of the weakening of the organized left – a process he dates back to the failure of the Camp David accords and accelerated by the Second Intifada.
“When you don’t have a left, the whole scene is run by the right-wingers, without any balance,” Levy said. “And they saw this vacuum, the right-wingers and they took over – not only the government, but also the agenda, the public debate, everything. There is really no one to stop the right-wing.”
Polls back up this assertion. One taken just after the law’s passing found 52 percent approval, and another showed that 67 percent of Israelis felt it was justified. For those concerned with the ongoing struggle for Palestinian rights, this apparent consensus over the intensification of undemocratic and anti-Palestinian policy has important strategic implications.
“The change will not come from within Israeli society. Life in Israel is far too good. There is no motivation, no reason for change,” Levy said. “Why would Israel bother to put an end to the occupation? Why would they? So change, if it will come, will come from the outside.”
Levy’s conclusion represents the worst fear of many within the Israeli government and Zionist establishment – that as the state continues its rightward shift and loses legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, more and more will conclude that the only way to reverse Israel’s continued oppression and discrimination of the Palestinians is through international pressure and action.
While the law intends to weaken the growing international boycott movement, it could very well have the opposite effect. For BDS movement supporters, the anti-boycott law, the “Nakba law” and the proposed loyalty oath are the logical conclusion of a state founded on apartheid and discrimination.
“When Israel starts implementing repressive measures, not just against Palestinians, but against Jewish nationals, this is undermining its ability to make the claim that it’s a democracy,” explains Michael Deas, European coordinator for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions National Committee. “And these sorts of new bits of legislations just provide further evidence of the undemocratic and oppressive direction in which Israeli political life is heading. It will serve as a motivating factor that will lead to new groups of civil society joining the movement.”
Deas also agreed with Levy that substantive change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is going to have to be spurred on from outside Israel.
“Israel is not unique in this respect. This is a characteristic of all colonial regimes. It was a characteristic of the end of South African apartheid, and it was a characteristic of colonial rule in many of the UK’s colonies,” Deas said.
The law has been in effect since July 12; the Israeli High Court has yet to respond to a petition filed that same day asking to overturn the law. The Court has 60 days since the petition was filed to decide how to proceed.
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