Two weeks ago, late on a Monday evening, the Israeli parliament passed a controversial law aimed at protecting the country from calls to boycott Israel because of its policies about Palestinians. The law, dubbed the “anti-boycott” law, makes supporting these campaigns a civil offense in the state of Israel. Days after the bill passed, public opinion polls revealed that a majority of Israelis (roughly 52 percent) support the aggressive measure.
In 2005, more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations began a global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel over violations of international law. Since the initial call, the campaign has grown increasingly effective as musicians from the Pixies to Elvis Costello have cancelled performances in Israel and multinational companies have ended contracts with the country to support BDS. For example, German railway operator Deutsche Bahn pulled out of an Israeli train project in the West Bank in May as a result of public pressure. With the Knesset vote, Israel has indicated that the BDS movement may be an effective form of nonviolent Palestinian resistance that is causing harm to the Israeli economy.
What does this new law mean for freedom of speech and, more specifically, the work of journalists in Israel? Simply put, if I, as an Israeli journalist, write an opinion piece in which I support or even insinuate support for the BDS or a boycott of products made in the settlements in Gaza or the West Bank, I could face a legal battle and the possibility of endless fines. I could face a legal fight if I write a piece arguing that BDS is one of the most effective forms of Palestinian nonviolence and should be supported by those that prefer nonviolent resistance to its violent incarnation.
I have written a number of pieces in the online Israeli magazine +972 which, if they had been written today, could get me in legal trouble with the State of Israel. This piece, written in April, would not be published in the current climate. Also, this well read and debated piece, co-written with American journalist Max Blumenthal, would surely not be filed in the current climate. In short, my ability to write in this public forum has been severely curtailed.
In an editorial last week, the New York-based Jewish Daily Forward printed a number of lines crossed out that are no longer allowed in Israel. Far from endorsing the BDS call, editors at the Forward argued that a boycott of products from the West Bank products (presumably referring to the Jewish settlements) is a legitimate form of protest. The editors wrote, “Some boycotts are ruthless and discriminatory, true, but in other circumstances, a boycott can be a legitimate use of nonviolent protest to achieve a worthy goal. A boycott of West Bank products could fall into the first category. It could also be seen as a noble attempt to effect change.”
The sad reality of this law is that I am unable to make a similar point in Israel as the Forward, and even printing similar words with lines through them would be a violation of the new law. As an independent journalist, the only safe recourse that I have is self-censorship in order to avoid serious litigation.
One of the most dangerous aspects of the anti-boycott law is the power plaintiffs are granted. Someone who brings a lawsuit over the endorsement of a boycott of Israel or a settlement (the law does not differentiate between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories) must simply prove intent to harm via boycott. No actual proof that the boycott was successful is needed to find an individual or group guilty of intent to harm financially. This law is not the only one that attacks Israeli democracy. Other laws are currently being debated in the Israeli parliament that would ban criticism of the Israeli army, give the parliament power over the election of Supreme Court justices and would allow the Knesset to investigate “leftist” NGOs.
Some pundits in Israel, quick to deflect criticism over the health of Israel’s democracy, claim that the Israeli Supreme Court will vote the anti-boycott law down when it is used. This could be the case, but there is no way of knowing, especially considering that some Israeli lawyers have said they believe the court will actually uphold the law. The fact of the matter is that the law, which is already in effect, is a clear assault on the freedom of speech of individual Israelis and members of the press. Those who support a free press and strong freedom of speech should speak out forcefully against Israel’s current assault on the fundamentals of democracy.
Joseph Dana is a writer and journalist based in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. He is a contributing editor to the Israeli independent web magazine +972.