Israel's anti-boycott law debate

Monday, July 18, 2011 |  Ryan Jones

Israel last week erupted in fierce debate over a new law that allows punitive measures against those who advocate or participate in boycotts against the Jewish state or territories under its control.

The bill was passed into law by a Knesset vote of 47-38 last Monday. It essentially enables Israelis affected by boycotts to sue those who are harming their livelihood. It also forbids the Israeli government from doing any kind of business with the boycotters.

Since the bill was passed, Israelis from across the political spectrum and much of the American Jewish community have been hotly contesting whether the law is appropriate for a nation that calls itself a democracy.

Opponents calls the law the most serious threat to free speech Israel has ever encountered, and the beginning of the end of true democracy in the Jewish state.

Even right-wing activists who support the politicians who voted for the new law say the bill should be overturned. They argue that even if they deplore anti-Israel or anti-settler boycotts, such actions are a part of free speech and the right to protest.

"To legally stifle calls to action - however abhorrent and detrimental they might be - is a disservice to Israeli society," said Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.

But Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, one of the law's chief supporters, countered that free speech must have boundaries.

In a country as small as Israel, boycotting a small sector of society, like the Jewish settlers, because you disagree with their politics creates serious economic strain.

"It's a principle of democracy that you don't shun a public you disagree with by harming their livelihood," said Steinitz during the Knesset debate that preceded the vote. "A boycott on a certain sector is not the proper manifestation of freedom of expression."

Chief examples of such boycotts in recent years were the boycott of the new cultural and performing arts center in the Samarian Jewish community of Ariel by left-wing artists, and the Palestinian Authority boycott of any and all businesses situated in Jewish "settlements."

A poll conducted last week by the Dahaf Institute found that 67 percent of Israelis feel the anti-boycott law is justified, though only 41 percent feel comfortable with the government enforcing it.

Of course, the Palestinians and the broader Arab world are up in arms over the legislation, calling it evidence of Israel's racist and oppressive nature.

Ironically, many of those so venomously opposed to the new Israeli law are the same that support the prosecution of anyone who uses his or her right to free speech to criticize Islam.

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