The Anti-Boycott Law Crosses a Line

Will Israel’s True Friends Now Wake Up?

Thursday, 14 July, 2011 - 11:18
London, UK

Only a few days ago I was talking about the issue of boycotting Israel with Jewish friends at a party. All could be defined as critical friends of Israel or liberal Zionists, deeply disturbed by the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and the anti-democratic trends gaining in strength in Israeli society. No one dissented from the principle of boycotting produce from Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. But when I suggested that the idea of a more general economic and cultural boycott of Israel was gaining support and that since the situation in Israel-Palestine had become so dire, it might be one of the ways of forcing Israel to end the occupation and begin serious negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a just settlement of the conflict, my thought was met with immediate condemnation and rejection. The settlements are one thing, boycotting universities or businesses in Israel itself quite another, I was told. It would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning the arguments was the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.

Well, now that the Israeli Knesset has voted 47-38 in favour of the law for the Prevention of Damage to the State through Boycott (the Anti-Boycott Law), which makes it an offence for citizens to either advocate or implement an academic, consumer or cultural boycott of Israel, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank, I wonder what these good friends of Israel feel about being consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state? Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation.

The settlements-supporting Arutz Sheva news service reported that ‘A ‘Panels’ Institute poll for the Knesset Channel concludes that 52 per cent of Israeli population support the new bill, and 31 per cent oppose it,’ so it can hardly be said that the parliamentarians are out of touch with public opinion. Nevertheless, voices on the right of Israeli politics were not unanimously in favour of this new attack on free speech by any means. The Jerusalem Post, platform for some of the most outspoken right-wing commentators,editorialised against the bill. Significantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior figures in the coalition government absented themselves from the vote in the Knesset, suggesting that they were aware of the damage being done to Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East by the drive to pass this bill into law and therefore not wanting to be visibly associated with the public spectacle – however much they may have supported the measure emotionally. Also, it may be a little premature for the parliamentarians of the right and the religious parties, and the supporters of the settlement movement as a whole, to be celebrating victory given that the law will almost certainly be challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court. Although there is no guarantee that it will be found unconstitutional.

But the fact is that signs of equivocation on the right are pretty meaningless since it is wrong to look at this law in isolation: it’s one more step along what is now a well-trodden path towards an increasingly illiberal, repressive, anti-democratic, ethnocratic and theocratic polity in which a hard-faced, exclusivist and racist nationalism is being allowed to characterise the entire country’s sense of itself. It’s true that the Anti-Boycott law crosses at least one line never before traversed: as the Labour Member of Knesset, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’; it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. But this hardly comes as a surprise. And whatever happens to this law, there are more such measures in the pipeline.

The friends I was talking with are among the most enlightened and aware of Diaspora Jews, who are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. They care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But, as their bifurcated attitude to the question of boycott shows, they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel, but in reality the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. Now, the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole, making pre-’67 Israel bow to the will and demands of the settlers and their political allies.

I’m reluctantly convinced that persisting with this illusory image of Israel makes enlightened Jews such as the friends I was talking with, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, part of the problem and not the solution. It means that they cannot take the necessary radical and public step to say ‘enough is enough’, to acknowledge the damage being inflicted by Israel’s government not only on the Palestinian people, but also on the Jewish people. I’m not arguing that taking such a stand must be followed by support for a general boycott of Israel – that remains a tactical matter about which it is perfectly reasonable to hold differing views. There are plenty of other ways in which Diaspora Jews, who finally wake up to what Israel has become, can determinedly become part of the solution and help the country understand that the prevailing mindset, the one that can happily support the Anti-Boycott law, is leading to an unhappy end.

Tony Lerman is the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Many of his pieces are cross-posted with his blog, Context is Everything

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