Boycotts and poliltics

The Knesset passed a law against those who would promote a boycott on Israel or its settlements. The anti-boycott movement began as an action against performers who refused to appear in the cultural center of Ariel, one of the large towns located over the 1967 borders. The Knesset vote was 47 in favor and 38 opposed, meaning that 30 percent of Knesset members avoided voting.
Those abstaining included the Prime Minister and Chair of the Knesset, both Likud Party colleagues of the law''s sponsors. Their abstentions reflected reservations about the timing and contents of the proposal. It drew wide criticism from Israelis and others concerned with the freedom of expression, and its proponents insisted on a final vote when the Quartet (representatives of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) were meeting about Israel and Palestine.
The anti-boycott measure has been condemned not only by those who object to the basic idea, but also by legal commentators who objected to its vagueness and other problems in its formulation. It is certain to be challenged as violating Basic Laws in the Supreme Court. Even if it manages to pass judicial scrutiny, the police or prosecutors might not be assiduous in enforcing it.
It has already provoked a spur to advocates of boycotts against the products made by industries located over the 1967 border, as well as appearances by performers in the cultural centers, and lecturers in the colleges located in the West Bank.
This may only be a short storm in our small teacup. Nevertheless, it''s in the headlines, and tells us something about politics here and elsewhere.
The sentiment involved in the measure, if not its precise formulation, has some degree of good sense. Israeli Jews and other Jews who urge a boycott against the country along with disinvestment and other sanctions, represent a thin slice of the population. As Jews against Jews, they have some appeal amidst the intellectual left, and stir unease and anger here. Two of them are, or have been, members of Political Science Departments. One left the University of Haifa for a position in Britain, and continues his anti-Israel diatribes from there. Another remains active at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheba, where he is a symbol of pride for some colleagues and an embarrassment for others. He has led donors to close their checkbooks, and University officials to take a stand on academic freedom.
More widespread are Israelis who oppose settlements over the 1967 borders, and participate in boycotts of industries, cultural centers, and colleges located in the settlements. Fortunately, the Hebrew University on Mt Scopus is too prominent to boycott. It is also located on a site that was over the 1948 armistice line, but formally included in Israel''s territory, and reachable by special arrangement between 1948 and 1967. It was only after 1967 that Mt Scopus could be rebuilt and expanded as a university campus. My friends and colleagues participating in a boycott of the college at Ariel have not, to my knowledge, mentioned French Hill. By non-Israeli conceptions this neighborhood is a "settlement," but home to numerous Hebrew University faculty members known to be left, right, center, or apolitical.
My experience with politicians here, in the United States, and a few other countries is that those reaching the top may be impressive individuals, wise as well as intelligent. Many others have failed my tests on one or another of these traits. Knesset members who promoted the anti-boycott bill resemble individuals who are successful enough in politics to win an election, but not likely to rise among those who decide on important issues.
Israel''s Knesset, the United States Congress, other national assemblies and lesser bodies suffer from a large number of proposals meant to solve a problem of the moment. Most are poorly drafted or duplicate provisions already available to enforcement agencies. Generally the nonsense does not make it out of committee, or fails to move through the two or more votes required for passage in most legislative bodies. Some that become law are ignored by administrators.
The anti-boycott provision touches sentiments on the public agenda that provoke intense support and opposition. It was difficult for some doubters in the Knesset to oppose the proposal actively, but several of them found convenient reasons to be absent from the vote. The law is problematic in its language and in terms of democratic norms, and unlikely to do more than provoke a few days of headlines and commentary. Israel''s court system is part of the policy-making process, and once again may protect us from the parliament.