Taking protest against Israel’s new anti-boycott law one step forward, a member organization of American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for Israel is calling on its supporters to boycott products made in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Americans for Peace Now adopted a resolution July 19 supporting the call of its sister organization in Israel, Peace Now, to actively resist the new legislation, and joined in its own call for a boycott on settlement products.
The new law, passed July 11 by a majority vote in Israel’s Knesset, allows those hurt by boycotts against Israel or West Bank settlements to sue for damages the groups and individuals who initiated the boycott. It also prohibits the Israeli government from doing business with companies that comply with boycotts of this kind.
The controversial legislation triggered a wide array of critical responses from American Jewish organizations, most of them stressing the potential damage of the law to Israel’s democracy.
But while most groups were cautious not to let their criticism be interpreted as supporting boycotts, APN decided, in a special meeting of its board of directors, to actively challenge the new law. The decision was taken days after Israel’s Peace Now announced its intention to call for a boycott on settlement products, thus openly defying the law passed by the Knesset.
The new law does not criminalize boycotting Israel, but rather makes it a civil wrong that can be remedied by court-awarded financial damages. Breaking the law would lead only to civil action, not to criminal punishment.
Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman, told the Forward that the meaning of the new resolution adopted by the group is that APN is now calling for a boycott on settlement products. However, the group has yet to decide on whether or not to actively launch a campaign calling on its U.S. supporters to join the boycott. “We don’t see it as breaking the law. We are challenging it,” Nir said.
He added that APN still calls for investments in the state of Israel and for supporting Israel in all ways, including financially. “The intention of our decision is to strengthen the line separating between Israel and the settlements,” he said.
APN, although smaller than the newly founded J Street lobby, is the oldest dovish group and is widely seen as part of the Jewish mainstream. Founded in 1981, it is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish community’s umbrella group, and participates in communal briefings and discussions.
As has been the case with other attempts by the Israeli legislature in the past year to adopt measures limiting free speech and the work of civil society groups, American Jewish groups spoke out against the moves, stressing the danger the law poses to Israel’s democracy.
“We’re disappointed that they passed the law,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for the Jewish public policy groups.
“We don’t support boycotts,” he said, adding that “The law does challenge democracy in a way, and hopefully the Supreme Court will respond.”
Supporters of the law in Israel say it is a necessary counter measure to boycott efforts.
“It’s a principle of democracy that you don’t shun a public you disagree with by harming their livelihood,” Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said during the debate on the bill, according to Ynet. “A boycott on a certain sector is not the proper manifestation of freedom of expression.”
The Anti-Defamation League, however, suggested in a public statement that the legislation is not the appropriate way to combat boycotts.
“To legally stifle calls to action — however abhorrent and detrimental they might be — is a disservice to Israeli society,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “We hope Israel’s Supreme Court will quickly take up a review of this law and resolve the concerns it raises. “
In an interview, Foxman expressed concern that in any case, a degree of damage was done to Israel by the law, even if the courts eventually quash it.
“The people who wanted it will say, `We introduced it, we argued for it, we got it passed,’ and the people who think it’s contrary to democracy will have their victory in the court,” he said. “People are playing politics with an issue that does Israel damage.”
Centrist American Jewish groups in the past year have pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government twice to contain what they perceived as damaging hearings in the Knesset, one targeting human rights groups and the other J Street.
The American Jewish Committee said the new law is not an appropriate answer to the campaign to delegitimize Israel and expressed its hope that the Israeli Supreme Court will rule quickly on its legality. “The anti-boycott law is undemocratic,” said the AJC’s executive director David Harris. “It ironically has already harmed, rather than helped, our community’s overall efforts to defeat those groups who challenge Israel’s legitimacy.”
Besides APN, an array of other dovish Jewish groups joined the mainstream groups in issuing statements condemning the law, including the New Israel Fund and J Street.
On the other end of the Jewish political map, the Zionist Organization of America has found itself having to explain its position after initially making a statement understood to be critical of the anti-boycott law.
In a first reaction to the passage of the law, ZOA President Morton Klein, sounded unhappy with the idea of criminalizing boycott movements. “Nobody was more appalled by the boycott of [the] Ariel theater than me, but to make it illegal? I don’t think so,” Klein told JTA, referring to calls by some Israeli artists to boycott a performing arts center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Later, in a detailed statement, ZOA clarified that the law does not make boycotts a criminal offense but only offers civil legal remedies for those affected by boycott. In a statement, ZOA made clear that it was “sympathetic to the new anti-boycott law,” and cautioned Jewish groups against judging Israel’s actions. “Jewish organizations should be very careful about telling Israel how to protect its security and economic interests, especially when enemies of Israel and outright anti-Semites are using the words of Jewish organizations that criticize Israel to encourage and promote their own external boycott, delegitimization and sanction efforts against Israel.”
The Israeli Embassy in Washington, fielding what it said was “not a small amount” of calls seeking clarification on the matter, reflected what appeared to be a degree of ambivalence, telling those with queries, “This is a matter of controversy in Israel, and it would appear that it will have to be heard by the High Court of Justice, as in any democracy.” But after absenting himself from the actual Knesset vote on the measure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he fully backed it.
The bill defines “boycott” 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,” according to a translation of the legislation, provided by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
The legislation applies not only to boycotts targeting all of Israel but also to those aimed at “an area under its control” — meaning that Israelis who support boycotting West Bank settlements would be vulnerable under the law.
Contact Nathan Guttman a firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.