Israel’s New Anti-Boycott Law Seen in Personal Terms

By Daniel Estrin

Published July 13, 2011, issue of July 22, 2011.
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The Knesset’s recent vote outlawing any advocacy of a boycott of Israel or the occupied territories and Jewish settlements under its control is seen by some as a mortal threat to democracy. But there are others who see the law in more concrete terms: as a threat to themselves.

The Law to Prevent Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott, passed on July 11, makes it illegal to knowingly publish “a public call for a boycott against the State of Israel.” Anyone who considers himself harmed by such a boycott — say, Israeli olive oil manufacturers in the West Bank — could sue the boycott advocate, and a court could order that person or institution to pay damages.

The full scope of who might fall under this new law’s purview is unclear because of its brief, murky text. But Anat Matar is sure she is one of those who will.

A senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s department of philosophy, Matar is a steering committee member of Who Profits? an Israeli group that publishes a list of companies doing business in the settlements. She is an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — an international movement calling for a boycott of Israel — and has written op-eds promoting it.

“Of course I am threatened” by the law, Matar said. “The question is, what am I going to do?”

Matar recently wrote an article in Mafte’akh, a TAU academic journal of political thought, exploring academic freedom of speech and the BDS movement. She doesn’t think her own university would ever sue her for her support of an international boycott of Israeli academia; the previous rector has had “difficult” discussions with her, she says, but she has never been kicked out of the university. Perhaps the Ariel University Center of Samaria, located in a West Bank settlement, would consider suing her, she speculated.

Matar is less sure of whether her university will be liable for what she wrote in Mafte’akh. Several calls to TAU’s press office on this question were not returned.

Elsewhere, Michael Handelsatz’s prominent op-ed in the July 13 edition of the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz epitomized both the playful defiance and the careful apprehension being expressed by some opponents of the new law. In his article, subtitled “Joining the Boycotters,” he says he hardly set foot in West Bank settlements before the law was passed, but now he’s going to make a point of doing so. But he made sure not to state this outright, instead declaring: “I am purposefully avoiding you-know-what.”

The paper’s publisher, Amos Schocken, said he was planning to speak with the Haaretz’s legal counsel to determine what the paper was now forbidden to publish.

“Of course the newspaper needs to be careful,” Schocken told the Forward. “We will definitely see a difference in the paper… but I am certain that there will be a way to say what needs to be said.”

Haaretz’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Dov Alfon, told the Forward in an e-mail that Haaretz has a few weeks to examine the legal aspects before the law goes into effect.

He added that the law “suddenly puts this side issue right on the top of the agenda, not only for Haaretz but for institutions, organizations and individuals all over the country. I, for example, was against an organized boycott of the settlements, but of course now I’ll have to reconsider my opinion, since the other option is apparently to lose free speech.”

(The Forward has partnerships in print and on-line with Haaretz.)

Ofer Neiman, active with Boycott From Within, an Israeli group that has successfully petitioned such international musicians as Elvis Costello and Santana to cancel performances in Israel, said he was concerned about potential lawsuits by Israeli music producers, who lose money when artists cancel their tours. Shuki Weiss, a major concert promoter in Israel who recently testified in the Israeli Parliament about his losses as a result of the boycott movement, was unreachable for comment.

Peace Now, the most public face of opposition to the law, has enlisted celebrities and ordinary people to sign petitions to boycott settlement products. Peace Now activist Hagit Ofran said her organization was blatantly breaking the new law — but it was still concerned about the financial repercussions.

According to the law, the minister of finance can deny tax benefits to an organization deemed to promote a boycott. Donations to not-for-profits, such as Peace Now, are tax-exempt, but if Peace Now lost its government-issued not-for-profit status, “any donation to this organization might be taxed…which is basically a death penalty to any non-profit,” Ofran said.

Barak Medina, dean of Hebrew University’s law school, said the law appears to apply to “everyone inside Israel, not just Israelis.” If an American visiting Israel publically supported a boycott, she, too, could be sanctioned, Medina said. If an American or foreign organization with an Israeli branch were to take part in a boycott, that group could also be sued, he said.

Parliament member Danny Danon, one of the sponsors of the bill, said he was “proud” the bill passed and brushed off claims of it being anti-democratic.

“I think it’s part of democracy to put limits,” Danon said. “In democracy, when someone is hurting someone else, you have to put limits.”

But Medina voiced confidence that the law would not last long. Even before Israel’s Supreme Court looks at the law, civil courts faced with claims submitted under it would have the authority to decide not to apply the law if they interpreted it as unconstitutional, he said.

Contact Daniel Estrin at feedback@forward.com


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