It is a relief that the Knesset’s passing of the so-called Boycott Bill has been met with a great deal of outrage and condemnation in Israel. It shows that even if the political class has few qualms about riding roughshod over their fellow citizens’ basic freedoms, at least some members of the Israeli public are unwilling to have their essential rights trampled on.
As several commentators have rightly pointed out, the Boycott Bill will stifle debate, suppress freedom of conscience and the right to protest, and unreasonably regulate business relations. Under the terms of the bill, it will be a civil offence to back any kind of anti-Israeli boycott, be it consumer, academic or cultural. Organizations that call for boycotts will not be entitled to receive tax-deductible donations or state funding. Anyone who is the subject of a boycott will be able to sue for damages. Evidence of actual damage will not be required.
This does not befit a democratic society. Yet some criticism of the new bill also rings hollow, particularly that coming from the quarters within the Israeli Left and the “international community” where economic, cultural and academic boycotts have been championed. After all, the bill is not only a defensive response to the growing support for boycott initiatives, but it also takes such initiatives to their logical conclusion. In fact, it is a mirror image of the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has found wide support among international, radical pro-Palestine campaigners, Western liberals and Israeli leftists alike.
Where the Boycott Bill penalizes organisations and individuals associated with campaigns that are critical of Israel, the BDS campaign seeks to de-legitimize initiatives that do no explicitly oppose Israeli policies. Where the bill compels Israelis to distance themselves from critics of the state, the BDS movement holds a wide range of Israeli individuals and organizations responsible for the actions of their rulers.
Ever since the first Palestinian BDS conference in 2007, the international boycott brigade has done its utmost to stem the open and free flow of ideas – because the BDS movement slaps embargoes not just on goods and services, but also on opinions and ideas. In the Palestinian territories and beyond, an unwillingness to subscribe to the BDS worldview carries with it the risk of being excluded, ostracized or branded as a “Zionist colluder.”
The BDS movement has politicized the work of academics, scientists, artists and athletes, pressuring them to take a stance on political matters even when their professions or projects are not inherently political. The BDS movement puts up barriers to potentially fruitful collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Israelis and the rest of the world. It imposes, in an undemocratic and intolerant way, a ”you’re either with us or against us” attitude.
This censorious attitude, this undermining of artistic, academic and political freedoms, is also apparent in the Boycott Bill. And just as the BDS movement elevates “consumer power” as some kind of worthy and radical political strategy, the Boycott Bill, too, presumes that refusing to buy a certain brand of facial cream or oranges is a radical, political statement that must be clamped down on. In actual fact, consumer politics represents the most shallow, posturing form of feel-good activism possible.
The ugly side of the new Boycott Bill – the way it stifles freedom of expression and prevents cooperation between different peoples – is also the ugly end-product of the international boycott campaigns against Israel. The Boycott Bill certainly risks severing legitimate political, academic, cultural and commercial ties and hampering freedom of association and free expression for both Israelis and Palestinians. But isn’t that what the boycottistas have been demanding all along?
No doubt the Boycott Bill is a pretty radical attempt to reassert Israel’s right to exist however it wants. But at the same time, it takes international boycott campaigns to their logical conclusion. Some of those who are now up in arms about the bill, because they realize it represents a severe clamp-down on essential liberties, would do well to recognize that the Israeli state has simply beat them at their own game.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for UK-based online magazine “Spiked”