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Now that boycott law passed, government to target High Court

Neve Gordon argues that the ‘boycott bill’ is a turning point in the erosion of Israeli democracy, and part of the Knesset’s greater strategy in which the next target is the Supreme Court

By Neve Gordon

Political change is slow. One doesn’t go to sleep in a democracy and wake up in a fascist regime. The citizens of Egypt and Tunisia can attest to the fact that the opposite is also true: dictatorship does not become democracy overnight.

Any political change of such magnitude is the result of a lot of hard work and is always incremental, indicating that there really is no single historical event that one can claim as the moment of conversion.

There are, however, significant events that serve as historical milestones.

The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, who doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire when police confiscated his produce because he did not have the necessary permits, will be remembered as the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolution, and perhaps even the regional social uprisings now called the Arab Spring. Similarly, the massive gatherings in Tahrir Square will probably be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, setting in motion a slow process of Egyptian democratisation.

In Israel, it might very well be that the Boycott Bill, which the Knesset approved by a vote of 47 to 38, will also be remembered as a historic landmark.

Ironically, the bill itself is likely to be inconsequential. It stipulates that any person who initiates, promotes or publishes material that might serve as grounds for imposing a boycott on Israel or the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem is committing an offence. If found “guilty” of such an offence, that person may be ordered to compensate parties economically affected by the boycott, including reparations of 30,000 Israeli shekels ($8,700) without an obligation on the part of the plaintiffs to prove damages.

The bill’s objective is to defend Israel’s settlement project and other policies that contravene international human rights law against non-violent mobilisation aimed at putting an end to these policies.

The Knesset’s legal advisor, Eyal Yinon, said that the bill “damages the core of Israel’s freedom of political expression” and that it would be difficult for him to defend the law in the High Court of Justice since it contradicts Israel’s basic law of “Human Dignity and Liberty”. Given Yinon’s statement, and the fact that Israeli rights organisations have already filed a petition to the High Court arguing that the bill is anti democratic, there is a good chance that the Boycott Bill’s life will be extremely short.

And yet this law should still be considered as a turning point. Not because of what the bill does, but because of what it represents.

After hours of debate in the Israeli Knesset, the choice was clear. On one side was Israel’s settlement project and rights-abusive policies, and on the other side was freedom of speech, a basic pillar of democracy. The fact that the majority of Israel’s legislators decided to support the bill plainly demonstrates that they are willing to demolish Israeli democracy for the sake of holding onto the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The onslaught on democracy has been incremental. The Boycott Bill was merely a defining moment, preceded by the Nakba law and the Acceptance Committee law, and will likely be followed by the passing of a slate of laws aimed at destroying Israeli human rights organisations. These laws will be voted upon in the coming months, and, given the composition of the Israeli Knesset, it is extremely likely that all of them will pass.

Israeli legislators realise, though, that in order to quash all internal resistance, the destruction of the rights groups will not be enough. Their ultimate target is the High Court of Justice, the only institution that still has the power and authority to defend democratic practices.

Their strategy, it appears, is to wait until the Court annuls the new laws and then to use the public’s dismay with the Court’s decisions to limit the Court’s authority through legislation, thus making it impossible for judges to cancel unconstitutional laws. Once the High Court’s authority is severely hamstringed, the road will be paved for right-wing Knesset members to do as they wish. The process leading to the demise of Israeli democracy may be slow, but the direction in which the country is going is perfectly clear.

Neve Gordon is the author of the book ‘Israel’s Occupation’ and can be reached through his website.

This post originally appeared on Al-Jazeera

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    1. Ben Israel

      When Gordon says “democracy” is under threat due to reforms of the Supreme Court, he means in reality “the radical Left agenda”. Why shouldn’t the people, through their elected representatives, choose the members of the Supreme Court? Gordon and the radical Left are the biggest opponents of true democracy, which means rule by the people through their elected representatives with guaranteed right for the minority. He wants an unelected elite to impose its will on society against the will of the people. No one is saying that a minority should have its rights trampelled on by the majority, but having a Supreme Court whose membership is determined by the existing justices is an outrage that is not tolerated in ANY democratic country.
      It is pure hypocrisy to say one is for “democracy” yet to support the current system for choosing justices.

      Reply to Comment
    2. JON

      Well, dear Mr. Gordon, as you said it yourself, no one took your freedom of speech. if you are so decisive on your boycott thing, please call to boycott the hand which feeds you but don’t cry when you will be subject to civil lawsuit. there is not any anti-democratic issue in this law. Do your boycott thing but prepare to bear the consequances. As you know the boycott is just another way to de-legitimize Israel as a jewish state (and not as everyone says to cause Israel to withdraw from the west bank).

      Reply to Comment
    3. Noam W

      Neve – sometimes with law it is important to be percise – if you call for a boycott you do not commit an offense, but a civil wrong (עוולה ולא עבירה( and you may be found liable, but not guilty (חייב, אך לא אשם). This law is bad enough without making it more than it is.

      Jon – to say that nobody took your freedom of speech, but that you have to bear the consequences is an oxymoron. The whole point of freedom of speech is that there are no legal consequences to the speech.

      BTW, if you look at the language of criminal statutes, both in the US, and in Israel – they don’t forbid anything – they do say that if you committ a crime you go to jail – i.e. your freedom to act isn’t taken away, you just have to bear the consequences.

      Reply to Comment
    4. JON

      @noam – I except your comment as it relates to the infringment of the freedom of speech. nevertheless, this right isn’t an absolute right. as you know if this right harms other protected rights, the court will have to balance between them both. well, in contradiction to others i don’t belive the court will interfere in this law. BTW, if you look on the criminal act of Israel you will see you were wrong about the prohibitions. i.e.
      the name of section 144 in the israeli criminal act is prohibition of publication calling incitement to racism.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      Clearly, the law discriminates between different acts of expression solely on the basis of a political judgement of lawmakers. A call to boycott of a cheese maker on the basis of the price of the product is fine, a call to boycott the same cheese maker on the basis of its use of land expropriated in West Bank can be a “civil wrong” — without any proof that it actually damages that cheese maker.

      Similarly, it is OK to urge a boycott of an academic institution (or an academician) as insufficiently Zionist but not because it is Zionist.

      It is particularly telling that the law does not require the plaintiff to prove that he/she/it suffered any damage. Given modest size of the opposition to the occupation, it may be pretty hard thing to prove. So it really amounts to give a tool to the public to engage in petty harrassment of the “fringe left”, and most important. The right wing has to throw some red meat to its supporter, and while lean carcasses of “fringe left” members have very little meat on them, they are better than nothing.

      Reply to Comment

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