Groups petitions court over anti-boycott law

Coalition of nine human and civil rights groups file petition, calling law “price tag on legitimate political statements.”

Peace Now boycott law_311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Peace Now boycott law_311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
A coalition of nine human and civil rights groups filed a petition with the High Court of Justice on Monday, asking the court to annul the “Boycott Law,” dubbing it a “price tag on legitimate political statements.”
Passed in July 2011, the Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott allows Israelis who are the targets of public boycotts or of public calls for boycotts to sue for damages. The law applies to boycotts called because of a company or person’s location in or connection with Israel, Israeli institutions or “areas under Israeli control,” giving them the right to seek compensation for damages in court.
The law also permits the finance minister to withhold benefits from bodies calling for boycotts and to prohibit their participation in state tenders.
The law defines a boycott as a call to refrain from cultural, economic or academic connections with an Israeli citizen, institution or company.
The petitioners include the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Public Committee Against Torture, Hamoked Center for Defense of the Individual, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights.
An ACRI spokeswoman said on Monday that three of the petitioners – the Coalition of Women for Peace, the Monitoring Committee of the Israeli Arab Leadership, the Jerusalem Legal Aid and the Human Rights Center – “promote economic boycotts as a way to fight the occupation.”
Attorneys Hassan Jabareen and Sawsan Zaher from Adalah, and Dan Yakir from ACRI, filed the petition, which argues that the law harms public debate, not least over controversial and current topics, and is unconstitutional because it violates the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty by harming freedom of expression.
In January the High Court rejected petitions by ACRI and Adalah against another recently passed law – the so-called “Nakba Law,” which entered the statute books last March and which empowers the finance minister to withhold government funds from groups celebrating the “Nakba,” or the “disaster” of the state’s creation in 1948.
In that ruling, the court found that the law was too new and so there were no concrete factual circumstances on which to judge the issue.
In their petition against the Boycott Law, however, ACRI and Adalah say that even though the Boycott Law is new and a lawsuit based on it has yet to be filed, the legislation nevertheless has had a negative impact.
The law, the petition argues, creates a “chilling effect,” by deterring those who want to use boycott calls to express a political viewpoint from speaking out.
“The law also harms the right to equality by limiting freedom of expression of minority groups,” the petition argues.
Monday’s petition is the fourth to be filed against the law. Last year, immediately after the law was approved, the Gush Shalom NGO and MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List- Ta’al) petitioned the High Court, asking that it annul the law. The third petition, by a group of citizens led by attorney Adi Barkai, only calls for part of the law to be revoked, specifically that relating to boycotts against “areas under Israeli control.”
The court decided to hear those three petitions together, and in January the state filed a detailed response to the arguments raised.
In that response, Deputy State Attorney Uri Keydar said that the law does not violate constitutional rights by preventing political expression, as the petitioners claim.
Keydar said the law does not prevent direct political expression, only public calls for and in some cases participation in boycotts, specifically those carried out because of a direct connection with the State of Israel or areas under its control, and which also resulted in concrete harm. Any calls for boycotts must also be public and known, the state noted.
While the law did harm freedom of expression, that harm was not in itself unconstitutional, and was relatively narrow, Keydar said. The law set a boundary on freedom of expression by imposing sanctions on those who call for a public boycott.
“The law does not prevent anyone from publishing a public call for the government to alter its policies in regard to Judea and Samaria as part of any opposition to government policy in that region,” Keydar said in the response.
The state noted in its response that the debate over Israel’s policies regarding the West Bank was “part of the public domain and part of the political and democratic discourse.”
However, Keydar said that this debate should not be affected by the proper purpose of the law, which was to “protect those exposed to boycotts on the grounds of their connection to Israel, Israeli institutions or regions under Israeli control.”