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Why You Should Care About the Anti-Boycott Law (UPDATED)

Even if you don’t agree with the aims of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, there is great reason to be concerned about what is transpiring in the Israeli parliament at this moment (for Hebrew speakers, live proceedings can be seen here). Debate is underway over a bill that would impose harsh punishment and financial fines on anyone engaged in the nonviolent protest tactic of boycotting, directly or indirectly, Israeli goods or institutions (even if the boycott is not successful).

This is an odious law for the ways in which it chills free speech in Israel — if democracy’s greatest test is its ability to allow the harshest criticism, whether the flag burners or the boycotters, Israel will be failing if it passes this law.

But what makes it even worse is that it purposefully conflates protest against the occupation with protest against Israel. The text of the bill, courtesy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, defines a “a boycott against the State of Israel” in the following way: “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.” (emphasis mine)

Roi Maor has a good illustration of what this will mean on a practical level:

If a person, for example, calls for a boycott of academic institutions that participate in the occupation, he could be sued in civil court, and ordered to pay compensation. If a company agrees not to purchase products manufactured in the settlements, it could be barred from government contracts. If an NGO joins the global BDS call, it could be stripped of its non-profit status, and compelled to pay taxes as if it was a commercial firm.

It will effectively codify an equation that has been the mantra of the Israeli right-wing and the settler movement: Any criticism of the occupation is an existential attack on Israel as a whole. This is a contention that is supported by only that vocal minority, but this law, if passed, would go a long way towards making criminal the belief among a vast majority of Israelis (including someone like Efraim Sneh in today’s New York Times) that Israel would be better off if the occupation ended.

If you still wonder whether this bill isn’t as bad as I’m portraying it, read it yourself. Also, here’s what the Knesset’s legal adviser, attorney Eyal Yanon, had to say in a legal assessment. Parts of the anti-Boycott legislation edge towards “illegality and perhaps beyond,” he wrote. Yanon’s final assessment: the law “damages the core of freedom of expression in Israel.

UPDATE: The bill was approved in its final reading after 10 this evening in Jerusalem, following five hours of heated debate. In the end, 47 MKs voted in favor and 38 against. It will become law in 90 days.

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