Amid Uproar, Israeli Lawmakers Vote to Punish Boycotters

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Israel’s parliament late Monday night made it illegal to call for a boycott against the state or its settlements on the West Bank. The measure, which passed the Knesset 47  to 38, had the support of the right-wing coalition led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who nonetheless failed to show up for the vote. Reports in the Hebrew press said Netanyahu told associates the measure went “one step too far” but gave no explanation for why he permitted the measure to go forward regardless. Other senior ministers, including foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and defense minister Ehud Barak, also missed the late-night vote.

The measure was decried as a blow to free speech and thus to Israeli democracy. “The Boycott Law will lead to unprecedented harm to freedom of expression in Israel and will bring justified criticism against Israel from abroad,” said Hagai El-Ad , director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “We will all have to pay the price for this atrocious law.”  In fact, before the ballot the Knesset’s legal advisor warned that the measure would be unlikely to survive a Supreme Court challenge. But lawmakers pressed on, irked by actors’ pronouncements last year that they would not perform in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, and by calls by some academics to boycott conferences at the university there.

Outside Israel, the boycott and disinvestment movement seeks to duplicate the success of activists in isolating apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. There’s a cultural component: Last year Elvis Costello and the Pixies both cancelled shows, sparking cries of  “cultural terrorism” and leading the Israeli media to frame every concert by a prominent international artist  (Bob Dylan recently played) as a political victory.  Most activists, however,  target the settlements, calling on people to refuse to purchase products, such as bagels and wine, manufactured by companies that set up factories on land Israel has taken in the West Bank.  Palestinian leaders said that Monday’s vote serves to formalize Israel’s intention to hold  that land despite its professed willingness to dismantle most of the more than 120 settlements in any final deal to end the 44-year military occupation and create a Palestinian state.

But  in Israel,  the worry the morning after was that the law would damage the national image it was meant to protect. Pundits said it was suddenly harder for Israel to boast of being the Middle East’s showcase democracy. “This law will serve as a weapon in the hands of those people who claim that Israel is not a democracy and does not respect human rights,” Amnon Rubenstein, a legal expert and winner of the esteemed Israel Prize, wrote in the daily Ma’ariv.  “It will also increase Israel’s isolation in the academic world and among Western liberal democracies. Paradoxically, this law increases the danger of anti-Israel boycotts. That’s the polar opposite of what Israel needs at the moment.”  Commentator Ben Caspit in the same pages:  “There is no reason that Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] should be able to boycott stores that sell pork (or that are open on the Sabbath), that masses of Israelis can boycott cheese producers and marketers, but left wingers cannot boycott the produce of the settlements, which they view as a cancerous growth in the state’s meager body.”

It shouldn’t take too very long to know whether the law survives a court challenge. On Tuesday morning, activists were already testing it, setting up Facebook groups calling for boycotts on settler goods and circulating an online “pledge of civil disobedience.”