JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Israeli parliament’s adoption of a controversial anti-boycott bill has been greeted with a firestorm of protest from liberal Israeli NGOs and civil rights groups.
On Tuesday, a day after the Knesset voted 47-38 to enact the measure following six hours of contentious debate, the liberal Gush Shalom movement appealed to the nation’s Supreme Court to overturn the law. Other Israeli nongovernmental organizations are vowing legal challenges, too.
"The Boycott Law will lead to unprecedented harm to freedom of expression in Israel and will bring justified criticism against Israel from abroad," Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said in a statement issued following the vote. "We will all have to pay the price for this atrocious law."
The bill, which was initiated by Likud lawmaker and ruling coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, allows for civil lawsuits against individuals and groups calling for boycotts targeting Israel or areas under its control. Those damaged by boycotts would be able to claim monetary damages from boycott advocates. The law also would force the government to stop doing business with companies that comply with such boycotts.
Elkin’s proposal came months after some prominent Israeli artists had called for a boycott of a new cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel, and some academics had urged a boycott of academic institutions in the West Bank. In addition, an Israeli construction company was hired to help build a new Palestinian city in the West Bank after it agreed not to use products from the settlements.
"It’s a principle of democracy that you don’t shun a public you disagree with by harming their livelihood," said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party during the debate over the new law. "A boycott on a certain sector is not the proper manifestation of freedom of expression. It is an aggressive move meant to force a sector that thinks a different way to capitulate. Boycotts are aggressive and wrong."
Immediately after the vote, Peace Now launched a Facebook group called "Prosecute me, I boycott settlement products!" The group garnered more than 4,600 "likes" in its first day.
"It is important to understand that this struggle is not against the settlers," Peace Now said on its website. "It is a struggle against the continuing wave of anti-democratic legislation, whose purpose is to limit the very right of legitimate public nonviolent protest."
A coalition of four rights groups — Adalah, a legal advocacy group for Israeli Arabs; Physicians for Human Rights; the Public Committee Against Torture; and the Coalition of Women for Peace — reportedly said that they also would challenge the bill in the Supreme Court.
Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Alex Miller said Tuesday that he would be the first to use the new law, announcing that he will sue Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi for calling on the public to boycott the West Bank city of Ariel, where Miller lives.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly had asked lawmakers on Sunday evening to delay the vote on the controversial bill, saying that it could embarrass Israel as the Mideast Quartet opened a meeting in Washington. But ultimately he allowed the legislation to advance, although he was not present to vote on the bill.
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon warned the Knesset plenum Monday that the legislation was "borderline illegal" since it could violate freedom of political expression. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who will have to defend the law against legal challenge, reportedly called it "borderline" defensible.
The liberal Israeli daily Haaretz and the more conservative Jerusalem Post both firmly criticized the legislation in advance of the Knesset vote.
The new law is designed to spread "a wide protective net over the settlements, whose products, activities and in fact very existence — which is controversial to begin with — are the main reason for the boycott initiatives, both domestic and foreign," Haaretz said in an editorial, calling the bill a "politically opportunistic and anti-democratic act."
In an editorial titled "The bad boycott bill," The Jerusalem Post wrote that "Civil society has an unalienable right to organize peacefully and to use its buying power or freedom of association to further political objectives, whether it be grassroots protest against the high price of cottage cheese, haredi activism against Shabbat desecration, rabbis’ calls to ‘boycott’ potential Arab house-buyers in Jewish neighborhoods or left-wing opposition to the government’s settlement policy in Judea and Samaria.
"Boycott initiatives should be allowed to compete for support in the free market of ideas," the paper editorialized.
An unnamed U.S. State Department official called the boycott legislation an "Israeli internal matter," according to Israeli newspapers. But there also was an implied criticism, as the official was quoted in Haaretz as saying that "Freedom of expression, including freedom to peacefully organize and protest, is a basic right under democracy."
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, currently in Israel, criticized the vote, saying in a statement that his organization is "concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression."
"To legally stifle calls to action — however abhorrent and detrimental they might be — is a disservice to Israeli society," he said.
Israeli NGOs and opposition legislators were still responding to the anti-boycott bill’s passage when the Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, announced that it would try to bring to a vote next week a bill that would establish parliamentary commissions of inquiry into the activities of human rights groups that criticize Israeli polices toward the Palestinians. The bill passed a first reading in January by a vote of 41-16.