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2011-07-21

Israel Draws International Criticism for Sweeping Anti-Boycott Law

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Israel has passed a new law outlawing citizens and organizations from advocating for boycotts against any Israeli person or entity. The law is drawing criticism from around the world as an attack on freedom of speech. Under the new law, any person, including journalists, calling for the boycott or divestment of Israel or the occupied West Bank can be sued by the boycott’s targets, without having to prove that they sustained damage. We’re joined by Gal Beckerman, the opinion editor at the Jewish daily newspaper, The Forward, which recently issued an editorial claiming "a boycott can be a legitimate use of non-violent protest to achieve a worthy goal." The editors of the paper then drew a line through the sentence, along with several others, to illustrate the type of reasonable thoughts that will be punishable under the new law. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Israel has passed a new law outlawing citizens and organizations from advocating for boycotts against any Israeli person or entity. The law is drawing criticism from around the world as an attack on freedom of speech. Under the new law, any person, including journalists, calling for the boycott or divestment of Israel or the occupied West Bank can be sued by the boycott’s targets without having to prove that they sustained damage. Israeli legislator Avraham Michaeli supported the law, saying that any call for a boycott is an act of "tortuous malice."

AVRAHAM MICHAELI: [translated] Boycotts are liable to harm business, cultural and academic activities of those subject to the boycotts, and inflict heavy damage, both financial and repetitional on them. In order to prevent such damage, it is proposed that knowingly publishing a call for any sort of boycott on anyone because of their links to state of Israel will be considered an act of tortuous malice subject to tort regulations.

AMY GOODMAN: But dozens of Israeli lawmakers voted against the measure, including Nitzan Horowitz. Horowitz said, "We are dealing with a legislation that is an embarrassment to Israeli democracy and makes people around the world wonder if there is actually a democracy here."

Prominent Israeli columnist Ben Caspit, who opposes boycotts, denounced the new legislation, writing, "This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people’s mouths. This is a thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging," he wrote.

The Jewish daily newspaper, The Forward, issued an editorial claiming "a boycott can be a legitimate use of non-violent protest to achieve a worthy goal." The editors of the paper then drew a line through the sentence, along with several others, to illustrate the type of reasonable thoughts that will be punishable under the new law.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For more, we’re joined by Gal Beckerman, who is the opinion editor at The Forward and the author of When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

GAL BECKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the discussion at the paper before the editorial that you put out?

GAL BECKERMAN: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, we really wanted to try to illustrate how absurd, in a way, this law was, because in some ways it was making illegal, verging on criminal, things that reasonable people, people who are, you know, quote-unquote, "pro-Israel" have been saying for a long time, in fact, you know, by some statistics, a majority of Israelis have been saying, which is that getting—ending the occupation might be a good thing for Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: What does this mean for The Forward? I mean, it wasn’t just symbolic, what you were doing—

GAL BECKERMAN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —putting the lines through the words. What exactly does this anti-boycott law mean for people who are writing, for people who are speaking, for people who believe and don’t believe in boycotting Israel?

GAL BECKERMAN: Well, one of the more disturbing things about this law is its vagueness, because it really kind of creates a situation in which, if you are seen to be even hypothetically suggesting that a boycott might be something that could be a legitimate form of a nonviolent protest, that could, under this law, be construed as somehow violating the rights, the civil rights, of, say, a settlement, a settlement that’s producing oranges, you know, who says that they would be hypothetically damaged by a boycott, hypothetically economically damaged, and then you could be sued in civil court. So, the vagueness of it is partly what is so problematic.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring Amira Hass back into the conversation. The reaction among the Israeli public to this law?

AMIRA HASS: Look, I’ve been away when this law was voted for. I think that the majority of Israelis, or many Israelis, accept it. They feel that there was a threat, that it threatens their livelihood and life and the legitimacy of Israel. And so, I think that the Israeli—most of the Israeli lawmakers feel motivated, because they’re also backed by a large constituency.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, Abe Foxman of the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a statement saying, "The Anti-Defamation League has a long history of vigorous opposition to any and all boycotts of Israel, [and] works every day to expose and combat those who seek to cause damage to the Jewish state. We are, however, concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression." Gal?

GAL BECKERMAN: Yeah, he—and he’s not alone. I mean, actually, the ADL, interestingly, were one of the first to come out against the law. But really, a very broad swath of American Jewish organizations, very much the mainstream, who have been pro-Israel in every way—you could not impugn their bona fides in terms of their pro-Israel status—came out against this, you know, because I think that it conflicts with these—with American principles of freedom of speech and the notion that even just by saying something, you could be liable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And isn’t the debate that is continuing to grow on the passing of this law an indication that, to some degree, there is a fear that this could spread rapidly, in terms of on a worldwide basis, because of the continuing inability of the peace process in the Middle East to achieve any kind of long-term solution?

GAL BECKERMAN: I mean, I think there is—I think this law, in some ways, was—to listen to the legislators who kind of came up with it, it was a way of saying that, you know, if Israel is going to ask European countries to fight the BDS movement—Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, any manifestation of it—that Israel had to do something itself to show that it was taking the same measures against its own citizens.

One other thing that it’s worth pointing out in this law, and I think why a lot of people reacted the way they did to it, was it does something else besides this kind of freedom of speech issue. It kind of erases the line, as well, between criticism of Israel and criticism of the occupation, which is very, very critical, because it defines a boycott against Israel as not just against Israel, but lands under Israel’s control, areas under Israel’s control, which means basically that it’s codifying, in effect, the mantra, really, of the extreme right in Israel for a long time now, which is that any criticism or any protest against the settlement enterprise or settlement project is an existential threat to Israel itself. And this makes it, in effect, law. So you have people who are—again, you know, could not be described as anything but pro-Israel, but believe that the way to ensure Israel’s security future, democracy, is by ending the occupation. And now their thoughts, in effect, or their—you know, any implementation of what they think they could do to protest this idea, could be—could land them in court.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it there. Gal Beckerman, opinion editor at the Jewish daily Forward, here in New York. Also, thank you to Amira Hass, who has just come off the boat. She was on the boat that was intercepted by the Israeli military that was attempting to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza. She was speaking to us from her home in Ramallah.

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