Responding to the anti-boycott bill 13/07/2011

Daniel Reisel, Yachad chair, responds to the anti-boycott bill passed in the Knesset on 12th July 2011

Yachad defends the right of Israelis to express their opinions

Yesterday an anti-boycott bill (the full text can be read here), was passed by the Knesset with a vote of 47 to 38. It will allow individuals or organisations to bring civil proceedings against anyone who calls for “avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.”

The implication of this bill is that if a person encourages others to refrain from buying products manufactured in the settlements, they could be sued in civil court and ordered to pay compensation. If an organisation calls for a boycott of settlement produce, they could lose their funding or their tax-exempt status. And according to the law, the threat of a civil lawsuit is not dependent on whether the announced boycott actually caused any economic damage; it is sufficient to issue the call.

Freedom to dissent

The first and most obvious problem with the boycott law is that violates the freedom of individual free speech. To seek to punish someone for their political opinions limits their freedom, creates a climate of fear and suspicion, and compromises the ability of every person to speak their mind. The bill sets out to target those who wish to boycott settlement produce as a political statement. Those who wish to boycott cottage cheese for recently increased prices, or businesses that desecrate Shabbat, may continue to do so.

Second, the law violates basic freedom of expression and debate in a democratic society. Freedom of speech is not just the right of a person to express their views; it is also the right of others to hear those views. Without a robust and vigorous exchange of ideas, a society runs the risk of political atrophy. A law limiting freedom of expression in this way is damaging to the fabric of Israeli society and has no parallel in other democracies.

Finally, the anti-boycott law is likely to prove counter-productive. People who have previously resisted the idea of boycotts as political leverage may now start to consider it simply due to the infringement of their freedom of speech which the current law entails. Peace Now has already announced that it will start a boycott campaign of settlement produce and there has also been an surge of support among Israelis for a call to boycott settlement produce.

Dissent in the Jewish tradition

Right from the outset, our tradition has valued and defended open debate and argument. In many ways, Jewish history may be seen one long argument. The first thing Abraham did was to argue with God about the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom. When God asked Moses to free the slaves of Egypt, our tradition tells us that Moses and God argued for days on end. When the Israelites were brought out of Egypt and were a free nation for the first time in four hundred years, the first thing they did was to argue with God in the desert.

And then as the Jewish people gained sovereignty in their own land, we uniquely invented the prophetic tradition. The role of the prophet was to stand against the power of the king, and to serve as the moral compass for the nation. The role of the prophet was to ‘speak truth to power’ and the words of Amos and Isaiah, of Micah and of Zechariah have become part of the DNA of Western civilisation.

The rabbis of the Talmud saw themselves as the heirs of the prophetic tradition. It is therefore not strange that the Talmud itself is a wide-ranging debate lasting over a thousand years. In every generation of rabbis the Talmud accorded respect and allocated space for dissenting opinions. Dissent is so foundational to our tradition that the Talmud goes so far as to decree that a ruling of a unanimous Jewish court is invalid (Sanhedrin 17a). Elsewhere in the Talmud (Shabbat 119b), the rabbis state that end of Jewish sovereignty in the land was due to the fact that its inhabitants did not reprove one another sufficiently. The Talmud realised that a healthy society is one in which all views are permissible even when they differ. Especially when they differ.

Yachad will not join those who call for a boycott of Israeli produce because we believe in debate and we are opposed to a policy of isolation. However, we fiercely and unapologetically defend the right of Israelis and Jews to express their opinion as enshrined our tradition and as stated in Israel’s own Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty.

We can be justly proud of our distinguished tradition of dissent. But dissent is easy in the absence of political power. The real test is whether we can uphold our ideals in practice.