A superfluous law

Whatever one might think of boycotts as a means of protest, they are certainly not foreign to our society.

Knesset session 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Knesset session 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Monday night, as the Knesset held its shrill debate on the so-called “Boycott Law,” the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra held in Tel-Aviv what was described by the critics as a magical performance of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder.
I am mentioning these two events in a single sentence not just because of the contrast in harmony, but because one of the performers in the concert – actor Itai Tiran – has been publicly boycotted by certain circles due to his failure to serve in the IDF.  Under the new law, Tiran cannot sue for damages, since he is neither the State of Israel, nor one of its institutions, nor a territory under its control. However, Tiran may now be sued for damages by the town of Ariel, since he was one of the actors who declared that they would not perform in its municipal auditorium.
Anyone who might now decide to sue him will not even have to prove that real damage was caused.
There are boycotts by haredi circles against supermarket chains that are open on Saturday or that sell non-kosher products. There are boycotts by certain national-religious circles against stores that employ Arabs, or against those who rent or sell apartments to Arabs. There are boycotts by self-acclaimed patriots against non-religious persons who did not serve in the IDF (without always checking why these persons failed to serve). Most recently we had the cottage cheese boycott. There are boycotts by left-wing groups against products manufactured in Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria.
However, the new law singles out only the last category (among the boycotts not directed against the State of Israel as such) as a punishable tort. This is objectionable, not only because it manifests inequality, but because it suggests that one side of the legitimate debate on the future of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria is limited in the legal means it may use. Alternatively we might conclude that the government of “the only democracy in the Middle East” does not recognize the legitimacy of the debate.
THINGS COULD, however, have been much worse. The original version of the bill proposed that boycotts of the State of Israel and territories under its control be considered a criminal offense. The original bill also suggested extreme measures to be taken against foreign citizens and states engaged in such boycotts. At least the ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, and Industry, Trade and Labor did their utmost to modify the provisions of the law and limit its negative effects, despite the state attorney’s indicating that even in its present form, its constitutionality is marginal, and the legal adviser to the Knesset’s questioning its actual legality (though he added that he would defend it in court if necessary).
During the Knesset debate on Monday night, MK Einat Wilf spoke on behalf of Ehud Barak’s Independence Faction, which as a member of the coalition was unable to vote against the law due to coalition discipline, even though it objected to it. Wilf was the only member of Independence to attend the debate, but refrained from voting.
In what was probably one of the most balanced speeches that evening, she explained that her objection to the law was based on its disproportionality, its contribution to a problematic public atmosphere, and its interference with the freedom of speech. However, she added that the issue should be decided on the merits of the provisions of the law, and not on the fact that the new law was likely to further damage Israel’s image in the world, and that the High Court of Justice was likely to declare it unconstitutional.
She also rejected the argument that the law posed a real threat to Israeli democracy, but pointed out with regret that the voice of “sane Zionism” was losing ground to an extreme and aggressive Right, which was trying to defeat its opponents by means of legislation, and to a post-Zionist Left which had adopted a narrative that distorts historical facts and besmirches the State of Israel.
All in all, it is a shame that this law came into the world, and that so much time and effort were invested in it. It will not promote understanding within Israeli society. It will not change the minds of those who object to Israel’s continued presence in the territories.
It will not prevent the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. It will not stop foreign economic and cultural boycotts of Israel in general and of the territories in particular, and it will make Israel’s struggle to gain international support for its positions all the more difficult.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.