In 1972 Jane Fonda traveled to Hanoi and spoke out on behalf of the North Vietnamese government, calling American soldiers war criminals. Today, most Americans agree that the Vietnam War was one of their country’s worst mistakes, but they still view Fonda’s actions as treasonous. In 1988 she apologized for her actions, saying that they were thoughtless and careless but that she was only trying to help end the killing and the war. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.While Israelis who call for boycotts against their country are not on Fonda''s level, they are subject to similar disdain within the general Israeli public. There is nothing noble or virtuous about their actions, and it''s not a question of their beliefs or their politics. The point is that this is not the way to demonstrate opposition to the policies of a democratically elected government. And despite its many imperfections, Israel is a free and democratic society – certainly freer than most – with numerous legitimate and effective avenues open for Israelis to oppose the actions of their government.
The question is where does the line pass that separates dissent from sedition? There is no doubt that any society that claims to be free must push that line as far as possible away from dissent. A free society is not defined by its citizens’ ability to voice popular opinions, but rather by their ability to voice unpopular ones.
There is a vigorous debate going on in Israel at the moment about whether a call for an international boycott of Israel crosses the line. But where most people seem to agree is that if it does not cross it, it is darn close. The anti-boycott law has now redrawn the line so that no legal doubt remains, but by no means has it stymied the debate. Quite the contrary; it has intensified it both within Israel and without. And thence the problem.
The law has provided fodder for the anti-Israel forums that routinely accuse Israel of restricting the watch-doggery of human rights organizations, and of limiting freedom of expression. Here is what Carlo Strenger, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has written in The Guardian:
“A growing number of attempts were made to curtail freedom of expression and to make life for human rights groups more difficult. The latest instance is the boycott law that was passed on Monday by the Knesset,… Out of their utter confusion between international criticism of Israeli policies and existential danger for Israel, the more moderate rightwingers look for a scapegoat for Israel''s unprecedented isolation. The Israeli left and human rights organisations are an easy target. Rightwingers claim that these provide the international community with ammunition for criticising Israel, and are trying to silence them.”
Strenger’s condemnation is by no means the most damning, and he is certainly not anti-Israel. He does, though, occasionally feed the alligators, which is what he appears to be doing in his Guardian opinion piece.
First, we might ask Strenger to name a country that does not, in some way, limit freedom of expression. Free countries are not measured in absolute terms of black and white, but rather by the level of freedom they provide. When freedom of expression conflicts with another freedom (say that most basic freedom – the right to life), it must yield, though the extent to which it yields should be minimal.
Second, Israel does not target human rights organizations. There are plenty of groups that have hijacked the phrase “human rights” and sullied the excellent record of bona fide human rights advocates. These groups who have obvious political agendas have learned how easy it is to improve their appeal to the masses by simply calling themselves “human rights” organizations. Thus, we occasionally find both leftwing and rightwing groups with some very appealing and misleading names.
But Strenger is right when he states that right-wingers, who are clearly behind the anti-boycott law, are claiming that the call for boycotts provides the international community with ammunition for criticizing Israel, and so they are trying to silence them. But here’s the problem: the anti-boycott law does exactly the same!
In fact, the law will likely provide the anti-Israel forums with more ammunition than they will ever get from the calls for a boycott. And it will make no difference that the law would be considered reasonable and legitimate in many free societies. In fact, the United States has passed stricter anti-boycott laws than the one just passed in Israel.
Even a veteran NGO such as Amnesty International, who while enjoying a measure of international respect has a dismal record when it comes to impartiality, has jumped on the bandwagon. Here’s what the organization just posted on its website:
“A law passed by the Israeli Knesset (parliament) making it an offence to call for a boycott against the state of Israel or its West Bank settlements will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Israel… Sponsors of the bill, … have made it clear that one of the main aims of the law is to penalize those using boycott calls to campaign against Israel''s illegal settlements in the OPT or highlight the ongoing violations of Palestinian rights caused by the settlements. "Despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, this law is a blatant attempt to stifle peaceful dissent and campaigning by attacking the right to freedom of expression, which all governments must uphold," said Amnesty’s Philip Luther.…Israel''s policy of establishing settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and is considered a war crime, according to the statute of the International Criminal Court.”
You don’t have to be a supporter of Israel’s current government, or even of Israel, to be appalled by the text of Amnesty’s post (Israel''s policy in Jerusalem does definitely not violate the Geneva Conventions). Fair, even harsh, criticism of Israel is perfectly legitimate, but this is sheer calumny. Not only have these NGO activists misrepresented the anti-boycott law, while they were at it they seem to have eagerly seized the opportunity to sling some extra mud at the Jewish state.
Amnesty’s post is an excellent example of how Israel’s detractors have added the anti-boycott law to their arsenal. But that is not the only problem with the law. There are concerns voiced by the Attorney General and the Knesset Legal Advisor that the law may ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
So, despite all the justification and rationalization, the anti-boycott law is a piece of legislation that Israel could have done without. The whole affair brings to mind the popular Israeli saying that “it is better to be smart than right.” It''s a wise saying, and it would have been good had the Knesset, the boycott callers, and Jane Fonda considered it before they acted.