Given the widespread protests over Israel’s newly enacted anti-boycott laws, a great many friends of Israel are wondering aloud why the fuss — specifically, why is this law treyf while the anti-boycott measures passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 have not aroused all these protests? Why is this anti-boycott law different from all other anti-boycott laws?
The answer is one of those embarrassing points that’s elusive when you’re looking for it but glaringly obvious once you see it. The U.S. measures (officially known as the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act — detailed at this Department of Commerce website) prohibit compliance with official boycotts declared by foreign governments that contravene U.S. policy. The Israeli law prohibits advocacy of boycotts against certain Israeli entities.
In other words, the American version targets action, while the Israeli law targets speech. Outlawing speech, any speech (or writing or other public expression), except in the most extreme cases of immediate threat to human life, is one of the most fundamental no-nos in Western democratic human rights theory.
The types of boycotts targeted by the new Israeli law can include official boycotts of Israel by Arab governments, but in practice most of them will be private initiatives by Israeli individuals or organizations, since most outside foreign boycott advocates will be beyond the reach of Israeli courts; in any case, the backers of the new law have made it plain that mostly they are aiming at Israeli entities.
The most controversial part of the law is not advocacy of boycotts against Israel, but against the settlements. Opposition to Jewish/Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank — on grounds that they are impediments to a territorial compromise between Israel and a future Palestine — is quite widespread in Israel. In fact, it could be said to be the fundamental dividing line in Israel’s very divided body politic today. This law is an effort by one side in Israel’s main political debate to silence the other side. One may speak against the settlements (so far) but one may not do anything about it, however non-violent.
Boycotting an entity to express one’s opposition is an old and honored tradition in Western politics. Think of the boycotts by American liberals of California grapes, Coors beer and a host of other union-busting industries, or by American conservatives of Disney and Procter & Gamble for allowing same-sex partner benefits. Think of the recent effort by pro-Israel activists to target Delta Airlines for its agreement with Saudi Arabia. All of them perfectly legal, legitimate and respectable, whatever one thinks of the political issue behind the boycott.
When you get down to it, much of the practice of kashrut is a form of boycotting, particularly the way it’s enforced in Israel. Hotels cannot receive kashrut certification from the Chief Rabbinate if they host entertainment with amplified sound on Friday night or permit belly-dancing at private receptions on the premises — not because the food isn’t kosher, but because the rabbinate doesn’t approve of those other management practices. Ditto restaurants that are open on Saturday. Likewise in New York: over the past generation nearly all the kosher delis in the city that were open on Saturday have shut down or changed their schedule, because of what amounted to rabbinically-directed consumer boycotts.
Moreover, countless factions in the Orthodox community have kashrut certifications they accept and others that they refuse to honor because there’s something about the certifying rabbinical authority that they don’t like. Back in 1993 one of Israel’s largest dairy companies, Tenne, temporarily lost its kosher certification (see here and here) for putting pictures of dinosaurs on its flavored yogurt containers, in a joint marketing venture with Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” which the certifying rabbis complained might lead children to believe that the earth was more than 5,753 years old.
I know that observant readers will object to the analogy. One involves observance of sacred moral laws, they will argue, while the other involves “political” opinions. What they don’t acknowledge is that liberals, too, have moral outlooks that guide their beliefs and actions, even if they aren’t derived from the same sacred tradition.
More details on the differences between Israeli and American anti-boycott legislation, as well as certain European anti-boycott laws, are spelled in this excellent post at Huffington Post by Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).