Washington Watch: Threatening Israeli democracy

Netanyahu was wrong to support a law that undermines the country’s democratic nature.

Peace Now demonstration against Boycott Bill 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Peace Now demonstration against Boycott Bill 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
If Bibi Netanyahu had been a young, white Jew growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s instead of the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he might take a different view of boycotts. He would understand that political protests strengthen democracy, and that laws restricting free speech and association weaken the fiber of a nation.
Many young Jews of his generation were active in the civil-rights movement, taking part in sit-ins, freedom bus rides, boycotts and marches for what they believed in, despite hostility to their cause throughout the South. Some, like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, gave their lives.
But Binyamin Netanyahu, Cheltenham (PA) High School class of 1967, is taking credit for a harsh anti-boycott law that many on both the Right and Left in Israel say is unjust and should be voided by the Supreme Court. It has been harshly criticized by both the liberal Ha’aretz (“subverts Israeli democracy”) and the conservative Jerusalem Post (a “bad” law that inhibits free expression and association).
One of the strongest critics is not a lefty peacenik, but Likud stalwart and Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin, who wrote, “woe betide the Jewish democratic state that turns freedom of expression into a civil offense.” Knesset legal advisor Eyal Yinon called the bill “borderline unconstitutional.”
He accused sponsors of putting their political interests ahead of national interests by enacting this “provocative legislation.”
Under the new Israeli law, a sit-in at a lunch counter, a boycott of a bus or a march that blocks traffic could be illegal if it is claimed to interfere with someone’s livelihood.
Netanyahu defended the anti-boycott law as necessary to protect Israel against “savage and irresponsible attacks” by its homegrown critics. Actually, the law is aimed at critics of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and is intended to protect settlements against economic, cultural and academic boycotts.
A quote in Carlo Strenger’s column in Ha’aretz from American philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” seems to sum up the PM’s position: “He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” The question is: does Netanyahu believe this is good law, or does he just say it is because his political survival depends on it?
THE NEW law allows those who claim to have been financially injured by boycotts – without having to demonstrate actual damages – to sue the activists. In addition to fines, the accused could also lose tax benefits and opportunities to bid on government contracts.
“It has a chilling effect on the basic rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association,” said an American Jewish leader who is a prominent lawyer and a 1960s graduate of Cheltenham High School with the Netanyahu brothers.
“The notion that you can outlaw a boycott, which is a form of expression and association, suggests you can have an opinion but can’t lawfully act on it or encourage others to do so,” he added. In America, the First Amendment protects individuals, not the state.
If Israel’s economy isn’t strong enough to handle protesting consumers, its security forces not strong enough to deal with violent protests and its society not open enough to cope with any form of peaceful dissent, what does that say about the country’s claim to be the only real democracy in the region? Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg called the controversial new law “bullying” by a tyrannical majority.
Some have wrongly compared it to American anti-boycott statutes. US law does not, as some have claimed, protect Israel against the Arab boycott. The Export Administration Act protects American companies and individuals from coercion by foreign governments.
No US law prohibits Americans – as some Jewish activists advocate – from boycotting Turkey because of that government’s hostile attitude toward Israel.
Today it is not illegal to organize boycotts in order to do economic harm to offending companies, just as it was not illegal to organize boycotts against bus lines, restaurants or hotels in the 1960s that refused to serve blacks.
THE ARAB boycott – refusing to do business with Israel – is not a violation of US law. But when the Arabs – or anyone else – try to force Americans to stop dealing with Israel – or anyone else – as the price of doing business with them, that is a violation of US. law. American anti-boycott laws are directed against states, not individuals, who are protected by First Amendment rights of free expression and free assembly.
The Anti-Defamation League, which played an important role in drafting US anti-boycott laws, called the Israeli measure “blacklisting,” and said it “may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis.”
If enforced, the new law will be one more action undermining Israel’s claim to being the Middle East’s sole genuine democracy – and one more factor undermining American Jewish support for an Israel that is steadily repudiating the political tenets of its founders.
I don’t support the boycotters, but I strongly support the right to peaceful protest by consumers, academics, performers or anyone else who disagrees with public policy – in Washington, Jerusalem or anywhere else. The greatest threat to Israeli democracy doesn’t lie in Iran or Gaza or Syria, but much closer to home.
Correction to last week’s column: Nothing in the 2008 RJC advertising campaign against Barack Obama used the term “Muslim Manchurian candidate.” It was, however, the gist of a campaign by many Republican Jews not officially affiliated with RJC.
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