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The anti-boycott bill that passed the Knesset yesterday—which makes it illegal to call for severed economic ties with Israel or its West Bank settlements—is a reprehensible criminalization of dissent

Liel Leibovitz
July 12, 2011
The Knesset.(Wikimedia Commons)

I am a citizen of Israel. I also wholeheartedly support a ban on the settlements, which I believe to be illegal, morally reprehensible, theologically misguided, and politically ruinous. So sue me.

No, really: Now you can.

As someone who cares deeply about the future of the Jewish state, I spent most of yesterday glued to the debate in the Knesset, which culminated in the passage of a law that would make it illegal to call for a boycott against the state or its West Bank settlements—with a “boycott” defined as “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.”

“An area under its control,” naturally, means the West Bank, or, more specifically, the Jewish settlements therein, which were never annexed and are therefore, officially and legally, not a part of the State of Israel. That’s an assertion with which none other than the mayor of Ariel, the fourth largest settlement, agrees: In 2001, when he sued the Israeli government for return of funds his municipality had paid in taxes, he noted that “the Ariel Local Council and the municipality, composed of residents of the region, convenes in the region and is managed from Ariel,” and is therefore not part of Israel proper. Amen.

And so, according to the new law, the statement I made in the first paragraph of this article makes me a criminal. So be it. According to the law, in calculating the sum of the damages I’ll be required to pay to whomever presses charges against me, “the court will take into consideration, among other things, the circumstances under which the wrong was carried out, its severity and its extent.” But what effect did this statement I just made have? What is its severity? What its extent? These are precisely the unquantifiable, amorphous, and maddening questions Israeli judges are soon likely to spend much of their time adjudicating. And for what? For a cheap gesture that sacrifices a pillar of democratic rule—freedom of speech—on the altar of politics. Everyone—even those who don’t support boycotting settlements; hell, even those who live in settlements—should find this law obscene.

As it turns out, the law’s iniquities aren’t limited to the geopolitical liberties it has assumed. During yesterday’s debate in the Knesset, Kadima’s Yisrael Hasson, a former high official in the Shin Bet, raised a good point. As of today, he quipped, any Israeli who wishes to deliberately avoid economic ties with, say, a butcher shop that sells treyf, is free to do so; in fact, Hasson noted, many religious Jews advocate such boycotts all the time. And a labor-minded liberal who wants to reject doing business with a company that exploits its workers is welcome to his opinions. But anyone who, based on a similar ideological objection, refuses to buy goods produced in the settlements is now breaking the law. This, Hasson rightly noted, is an absurdity.

The Knesset’s own legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, agreed. Calling the legislation “borderline illegal,” Yinon argued that its definition of boycott “is a violation of the core tenet of freedom of political expression” designed solely to “affect the political debate on the future of Judea and Samaria, a debate that has been at the heart of the political debate in the State of Israel for over 40 years.”

And affect it shall: As the blogger Roi Maor noted in the liberal online magazine +972, the law’s bend is entirely economic. “If the court will find that a wrong according to this law was deliberately carried out,” it reads, “it will be authorized to compel the person who did the wrongdoing to pay damages that are not dependent on the damage” actually done.

This means that the law places the burden of proof not on the plaintiff—which should be the case when one is suing for alleged damages—but on the defendant. It also means that all an activist must do to quash the opinions of those who oppose the settlements is file a suit. Organizations who oppose the settlements—which includes virtually all of Israel’s human rights NGOs—can now be stripped of their nonprofit tax status. Individuals who oppose the settlements can now be taken to court and forced to pay hefty legal fees to defend their freedom of speech. Under these punitive conditions, it is very likely that many will simply choose to remain silent.

This is how oppression works.

There is much more to say about the law. Each of its clauses presents challenges both legal and logical. But let us not waste time parsing words: Anyone who is passionate about Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state should stand up and denounce this law as sharply as possible. It must be repealed, and none of us must remain silent until it is.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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