In the Wild, Wild West, American settlers used to “circle the wagons” when their wagon train came under attack. Some of Israel’s lawmakers are doing something similar in our time.
Faced with a barrage of international criticisms, and with a concerted campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state, and with mounting calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, some lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to pass laws which are intended to stem the tide of widespread condemnation of Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians.
One such law, The Boycott Law, allows for civil suits against Israelis who organize or publicly endorse boycotts against Israel or its institutions, including universities, settlements and businesses in the West Bank. While the law does not call for criminal sanctions, it does allow the victim of boycotts to sue for damages in civil court.
Critics of the legislation say that it violates free speech and free expression. Proponents say that free speech, which has its limits, does not give us the right to injure the economic wellbeing of others. They also say something along these lines, “How can we ask the world community to ban boycotts against Israel, if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves?”
In my opinion, even though I understand the rationale for such laws, and even though I can relate to the pain caused by efforts to delegitimize Israel as the home for the Jewish people, especially given the painful history that brought Israel into existence in the first place, still, I believe that on the whole, such laws do more harm than good.
There are several reasons I oppose The Boycott Law: it doesn’t work, it helps Israel’s enemies, it fundamentally undermines what Israel is all about, and it diverts attention from what needs to be done to restore Israel’s standing in the world.
The Boycott Law will not work. On the contrary, when people who believe strongly in a cause are told “no,” they become even more emboldened to do exactly the opposite. Numerous examples come to mind. The Viet Nam War, for example, was opposed by millions of Americans, some of whom took to the streets, burned their draft cards in the face of criminal prosecutions, and brought the government to its knees in a bid to end the war. The Arab Spring, although the final results are still in play, is a recent example of people taking to the streets and declaring a resounding “yes” to freedom, while assuming incalculable personal risks themselves. Simply put, it is almost impossible, over the long term, to legislate successfully against the idealistic fervor of those who are deeply committed. It doesn’t work, and may actually embolden those who have been sitting quietly on the sidelines.
Another problem with The Boycott Law is that is gives fodder to Israel’s enemies, who are waging a propaganda war against the Jewish state, and who search for any means possible to discredit and delegitimize the state. Therefore, while Israel holds herself out as a “democratic” state, with full freedom bestowed on its citizenry, the Boycott Law can easily be portrayed as an affront to democracy, and as a curtailment to free speech. The enemies of Israel could easily say, “What kind of democracy can Israel be is she sets out to curtail the freedom of expression of her own people?” Even the Anti-Defamation League, not exactly a bastion of liberal thinking, criticized the law saying it could impinge on the “basic democratic right of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
The Boycott Law is also dangerous because it can lead to a slippery slope by which Israel loses sight of her identity, her historical legacy, and the moral justification for her existence. Israel came into being, in part, because of 2000 years of oppression of the Jewish people, including forced exile, forced conversion, discrimination, inquisitions, pogroms, etc., ultimately culminating in the Holocaust, which continues to stand as one of the most evil deeds perpetrated by the hand of man.
Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, came the birth of a new nation, the nation of Israel, in the land where Jews were historically and religiously connection for over 3000 years. It was fitting, therefore, considering what Jews went through to get a state of their own, that this nation would be democratic and free, and would protect the rights of all minorities, and would serve as a “light unto the nations.” In many respects, Israel has lived up to this enormous challenge, and has come to embody much of what is needed to revitalize the Middle East: economic prosperity, job creation, education, democratic rule, personal freedom, the rule of law, protection of minorities, empowerment of women, etc. It would be very wrong indeed to allow the “paranoia” of the moment to undercut Israel’s stellar achievements, to discount her ability to do good in the world, and to confuse her sense of identity.
My final objection to The Boycott Law is that it diverts attention from what really needs to be done to restore Israel’s image in the world. Our goal, as Israelis, should be to consummate a peace deal with the Palestinians, and to bring an end to the occupation, as soon as peace is possible. In the meantime, to facilitate and expedite the peace process, we should be doing things which point to the possibility of peace, such as spearheading an effort to revitalize the Middle East economically with good paying jobs, to put new models in place, and to promote the emergence of personal freedoms throughout the region. The Boycott Law is a short-sighted diversion, an ideological poke in the eye, which diverts attention from constructive action that could be taken, even at this time, to end the diplomatic paralysis, to build neutral pathways to peace, and to move forward on a Vision of Hope for the region, a vision of Peace, Prosperity and Freedom.
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