Why isn’t everyone in favor of Israel's Boycott Law? - analysis

The law has been the target of protest and skepticism from the UN and human rights NGOs throughout Israel, primarily on the grounds that it impedes freedom of speech, expression and association.

Gideon Sa'ar, head of the New Hope political party. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Gideon Sa'ar, head of the New Hope political party.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in collaboration with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, has permitted anti-boycott regulations against companies that choose to boycott sales in Israel.

If approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, these regulations are expected to be used against Unilever Global for allowing its subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s to pull its products from the West Bank. The regulations apply to an Israeli law that has sparked controversy with the United Nations and many human-rights NGOs.

Israel’s Boycott Law, also referred to as the Anti-Boycott Law, prohibits the public promotion of economic, academic or cultural boycott by Israeli citizens and organizations against Israeli institutions or settlements in the West Bank.

It also allows for a variety of actions to be taken against those who call for boycotts, including civil lawsuits, prevention from participating in public tenders and the revocation of economic benefits given by the state.

Passed by the Knesset in 2011, the law has been the target of protest and skepticism by the UN and human-rights NGOs throughout Israel, primarily on the grounds that it impedes freedom of speech, expression and association.

THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In 2012, a UN special rapporteur, looking into the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, expressed wariness of Israel’s moves to condemn boycotts of Israeli products, in part by passing the Boycott Law.

The UN report expressed concern about “recent threats to openness and acceptance of divergent views in Israel... and growing intolerance of criticism regarding the policies and practices of occupation.”

The UN Human Rights Committee in 2014, tasked with researching Israel’s actions in the field, filed a report that expressed concern regarding the Boycott Law and the Foreign Funding Law, which imposes mandatory disclosure of foreign funds received by any association or company.

“The Committee is concerned [about] the chilling effect that the Boycott Law (which provides that a call for economic, cultural, or academic boycott of people or institutions in the state party or the OPT [occupied Palestinian territory] for political reasons is a civil offense) and the so-called Foreign Funding Law... may have on the freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of association,” the report said.

Israel is expected to send a delegation to the Human Right Committee in March as part of its periodic review; the subject of the Boycott Law and its new regulations may arise during the meeting.

A petition for the law’s cancellation was submitted to the Supreme Court in 2012 on behalf of several human-rights organizations in Israel, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and HaMoked – the Center for the Defense of the Individual.

“Israeli human-rights organizations stress that irrespective of their own positions regarding the tactic of boycott, outlawing it severely restricts freedom of expression by targeting nonviolent public expressions of opposition to Israeli policies,” the petition reads.

“Defining boycott as a civil wrong suggests that all Israelis have a legal responsibility to promote the economic advancement of the settlements in the [OPT],” wrote attorney Hassan Jabareen, director of Adalah. “This means that Israeli organizations opposing the settlements as a matter of principle are in a trap: Any settler can now constantly harass them, challenging them to publicly declare their position on the boycott of settlements and threatening them with heavy compensation costs if they support it.”

In response to the petition, the Supreme Court ordered the state to justify the law, or it would be canceled.

“The aim of this law is to prevent damage caused by the phenomenon of boycotts imposed on various parties due to their relation to the State of Israel,” the state said. “The boycotts are liable to damage trade, cultural or academic activities of the target of the boycott and to cause it grave damage, both financial and reputational.”

This response summarizes the many endorsements of the Boycott Law. Proponents argue that without a proper framework in place to protect the State of Israel against boycotts, its financial stability and legitimacy are at risk.

After Sa’ar announced in a tweet his approval of Liberman’s regulations for the law, he tweeted a simple statement expressing the importance of the law’s existence: “The State of Israel must fight the foolish attempts to boycott it, which are part of a broader process of attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.”

According to MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionist Party), a member of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Unilever Global allowing Ben & Jerry’s to pull its products from the West Bank is a targeted move against the State of Israel.

“Boycotting Israel – part of Israel – is a part of the BDS movement,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “If you were against child labor, for example, it shouldn’t matter if it’s in the US, Mexico, Thailand or wherever – you’re against child labor. But if you’re targeting a specific country, you are declaring war on this country.”

While Unilever products are available in nearly every country, Ben & Jerry’s products are not available for purchase in Crimea, Donbas, Kashmir or any other areas that could be considered occupied nations (as defined by the EU).

In this sense, Rothman’s suggestion that a company’s political decisions should be universal and not targeted against any specific country may fall short of condemning the ice-cream supplier, though its parent company is up for easy debate.

All said, the ice-cream manufacturer’s products will remain available in Israel. In Ben & Jerry’s announcement of its move, the company wrote: “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, [they] will stay in Israel.”