Which way?

Anti-boycott law is a great victory for the Right, but it is clear that they are reaching for a much more precious prize -- changing the character of Israeli society.

Right wing hand (do not republish) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Right wing hand (do not republish)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
But it’s actually only one more step, albeit a giant one, along the path that the right-wing majority in the Knesset wants to take us down. It’s a path that leads our society away from democracy, freedom of expression, enlightened globalism and liberal Jewish values. And if we are not careful and wise, that path will lead us straight towards oppressive authoritarianism, crass anti-intellectualism and self-righteous isolationism.
The anti-boycott law – officially known as “The Law to Prevent Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott” – was approved by the Knesset with a 47 to 38 majority on July 11. This law makes it a civil offense for any citizen not only to call for an economic boycott, but any boycott of any place, activity or person in Israel, including, specifically, in the territories.
The law was initiated by Knesset Members Zeev Elkin (Likud) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), who claim that the law does not limit free speech and merely makes a necessary distinction between legitimate political opinion and abuse of Israel’s democracy. But the law does limit political expression because it stifles the debate on one of Israeli society’s most controversial issues. Thus, the law not only effectively serves the government’s policies in the territories, it also attempts to erase the Green Line from Israelis’ economic, cultural, geographic, and psychological maps.
The law is a great victory for the right. But it is clear that they are reaching for a much more precious prize – changing the character of Israeli society.
“Beware!” MK Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) warned the Israeli public during a Knesset debate. Shame on you! Learn patriotism from us.”
By “us” she means the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, or, more specifically, those immigrants who have allied themselves with the Right and its goals. But to me, Michaeli’s patriotism is uncomfortably similar to proto-fascism. Patriotism, as she and her colleagues understand it, means curbing debate. It means legislating loyalty not only to the state but to its policies and criminalizing dissent.
And it promotes a simplistic view of democracy, in which the majority has the right to aggressively force its will on the minority.
But there are obstacles on the way to creating this patriotic society.
First, they have to get rid of all those pesky left-wing NGOs and human-rights groups. For several years, the Right has been involved in a systematic campaign to delegitimize these groups and portray the human-rights discourse as unpatriotic. Now they’re going after their money. In mid-July, an attempt to set up parliamentary inquiry committees into the sources of funding of left-wing NGOs was defeated in the Knesset. But even without those committees, the anti-boycott law could be crippling to groups supporting Israeli- Palestinian peace and human rights, because it creates an “I’ll sue you” chill factor and the threat of prohibitive legal fees.
Once the NGOs are out of the way, it will be much easier to remove the real hurdle: the Supreme Court.
“Dir balak” (“Watch out”) MK Arie Eldad (National Unity) rhetorically warned the Supreme Court judges, using a disrespectful Arabic expression that sounds more like a threat than a warning.
Eldad and his colleague, MK Yariv Levin (Likud), are determined to push forward a bill that would grant the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee the power to veto Supreme Court candidates. Calling the judges post-Zionist – the new ultimate epithet, used incessantly by rightwing groups such as the settlers’ movements and Im Tirzu to discredit their opponents – Levin complained in a Knesset debate that “a radical minority of judges… are trying time and again to force their worldview upon us after it was rejected by a large majority of the public.”
The first skirmish in the battle against the court will be coming up soon. NGOs are likely to petition the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the anti-boycott law. If the court folds and doesn’t reject the law, then the Right can gloat that they have effectively stripped the court of its power. And if the court does rule against the law, then it will strengthen their efforts to present the court as a gilded elite that strikes down laws that were legally and democratically – at least in the formal sense – adopted by a majority of the Knesset.
It’s a win-win situation for the extremist, nationalist right and a lose-lose situation for democracy.
Many Israelis want to live in simple normalcy. Some of us hope to have enough energy left at the end of the day, after struggling to pay for overpriced consumer goods and privatized, once-public services, to devote ourselves to our individual dreams and our collective hopes for Israel. But this normalcy is a threat to the right-wing view of the world. Theirs is a primordial view that sees the Jewish people as God’s eternally chosen people and the eternal victims of the world.
Theirs is a view that believes that Israel is still the same fledgling state that it was in 1948, rather than the robust, strong, proud country that it is today.
And the Right knows very well that for some Israelis, weary of endless conflict and still reeling from the years of terror, their nerves frayed by constant vilification and by the leaders’ manipulations of their fears, this primordial sense carries the illusion of comfort and security.
This where true leadership should come in. True leadership should help the public to overcome its fears and regain realistic hope. But even our moderate leadership is unable or unwilling to meet that challenge, while the far-right foments our fears, in the name of patriotism. •