“It’s almost as if it were designed to propagate the very thing it’s designed to suppress,” Stephen Clingman, a South African-born English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told me this morning. I had called him with a leading question that, as a supporter of Israel, I have long dreaded to ask, but that I felt Israel’s passage yesterday of the anti-boycott law demanded: Does the Israeli government legitimately raise comparisons to the former apartheid regime of South Africa? I have long rejected this analogy, and still do (so does Clingman), and can give you about a dozen reasons why, including the nature of the oppressed minority’s politics and the structure of the majority’s government. And it is in part because I reject this analogy that I also reject the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement—both against Israel and against the settlements—that the law would ostensibly combat.
But the passage of this legislation has forced me to grapple with this analogy nonetheless. In striking against the international BDS movement and its undeniable, and undeniably unfair, campaign of delegitimization with such an absurd, draconian gesture, isn’t the Israeli government compelling all honest observers to pay more attention to the motives and arguments of the BDS movement? It seems to me that MK Zeev Elkin, of Likud, the bill’s main sponsor, is the BDS movement’s most useful of idiots. He ought to get a cut of the donations that are about to pour in.
Implicit in insistences today from the U.S. State Department and the Anti-Defamation League that the anti-boycott law offends Israel’s democracy (“among Israel’s many assets is its vibrant democracy,” Abraham Foxman said. “To legally stifle calls to action—however abhorrent and detrimental they might be—is a disservice to Israeli society”) is that, at some point, if you keep going down this road, you no longer are a democracy, and the BDS movement will have won. This is not only a tactical or strategic misstep, as some have suggested; it is a fundamental, moral one.
And here is where the South Africa analogy is most useful. “There was lots of suppression of speech in South Africa, lots of suppression of press reporting, a curtailment of access to news,” Clingman remembers. “I’m not saying there’s a clear parallel here, but every time the laws for detention without trial were extended, these were exercises of authority, but they ended up delegitimizing the regime. Frequently the laws designed to shore up the regime’s power ended up undermining it. An expression of power can become an expression of weakness.” Israeli human rights groups will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the law, and they will likely (and hopefully) get their wish; the notion of a similar thing happening in 1970s South Africa is laughable. But the challenge remains until the judges handle it.
Speaking of challenges, today in Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz had a challenge for Israel: Sue me, he said. I have a different one: Prove me wrong. Please don’t ever force me to me make today’s phone call again.
Israel Bans Boycotts Against the State [NYT]
Israeli Rights Groups To Ask Supreme Court to Overturn Law Banning Boycotts of Settlements [AP/WP]
Israeli Boycott Furor Misses the Point [Contentions]
Related: Unruly [Tablet Magazine]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.