Israel's Ban on Boycotts Faces Legal Challenge from Civil Rights Groups
Wave of condemnation for new law forbidding citizens from promoting academic, consumer or cultural boycotts.
By Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
Tuesday 12 July 2011
Israeli civil rights groups have launched legal challenges to a new law that in effect bans citizens from calling for boycotts of Israeli goods, services, businesses or cultural or academic institutions.
The passing of the law late on Monday night prompted a wave of criticism and condemnation in the Israeli press, with one eminent law professor describing it as "the blackest day in Knesset [Israeli parliament] history".
Gush Shalom, an organisation that campaigns for an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, filed a petition to the supreme court, saying the new law was an attempt "to silence criticism against the government's policies in general and its policies in the occupied territories in particular, and prevent an open and productive political discourse, which is the backbone of a democratic regime".
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition to the high court of justice, saying the new law was "unconstitutional and undemocratic" and set a precedent for limiting freedom of expression.
A coalition of four rights groups – Adalah, a legal rights organisation for Israeli-Arabs, Physicians for Human Rights, the Public Committee Against Torture and the Coalition of Women for Peace – also pledged to launch a high court challenge. The new law "gives protection to the illegal West Bank settlements in Israeli law by penalising their opponents", the coalition said.
In defiance of the law, Peace Now launched a new campaign calling for the boycott of wine and olive oil produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Under the terms of the law, passed by 47 votes to 38, an individual or organisation proposing a boycott may be sued for compensation by any individual or institution facing possible damage as a result. Evidence of actual damage will not be required.
It bans consumer boycotts of goods and services produced in West Bank settlements and the blacklisting of cultural and academic institutions in settlements. It also bars the government from doing business with companies that comply with boycotts.
Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, defended the law on Israeli Army Radio: "Boycotts against the state of Israel certainly cannot be considered legitimate from Israel's point of view and boycotts against the settlements or any other region of the country are not a democratic way to determine democratic oversight."
Israel has occupied the West Bank for 44 years but its settlements there are illegal under international law.
The absence of the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, from the vote on the new law came under fire.
Sima Kadamon in Yedioth Ahranoth questioned why Netanyahu, who was reportedly at home on Monday evening, missed the vote. "Could it be that [he] realises that this is one of the most anti-democratic and individual right-denying laws ever passed ... and that he was simply ashamed to be present?"
Ehud Barak, the defence minister, also was absent from the vote although the bill, sponsored by Ze'ev Elkin, the chairman of the governing coalition, was endorsed in advance by the cabinet.
Ben Caspit, a commentator for the Maariv newspaper, said: "This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people's mouths. This is thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging."
In the same paper, law professor Amnon Rubenstein said: "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. 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 ... It seems to me that yesterday will be remembered for years to come as the blackest day in Knesset history."