What is the anti-boycott law? Who does it affect?

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is set to pass (after some convoluted last minute wrangling) today one of the most anti-democratic measures in the country’s history, the so-called “Anti-Boycott Law.” A link to the full text’s translation can be found here.

Simply put, the law seeks to penalize those who call for boycotting Israel, the settlements, or anyone related to the occupation. If a person, for example, calls for a boycott of academic institutions that participate in the occupation, he could be sued in civil court, and ordered to pay compensation. If a company agrees not to purchase products manufactured in the settlements, it could be barred from government contracts. If an NGO joins the global BDS call, it could be stripped of its non-profit status, and compelled to pay taxes as if it was a commercial firm.

This law joins a long and ignominious list of legislative acts that have passed or been suggested in the past few years, that seek to reduce Israelis’ freedom of speech and assembly, and formalize discrimination of Palestinian Israelis. But it is also different from previously enacted legislation. Unlike the segregation law, it goes beyond enshrining an existing practice. And unlike the Nakba law, it will have a significant and immediate practical effect. As of today, a wide range of people and groups who once called for a boycott will cease doing so. The space for debate and discussion in Israeli society will shrink right before our eyes.

Although only a small minority of Israelis have expressed support for BDS (and I am not one of them), their voice has been significant. At the very least, some very prominent cultural figures have called for boycotting the settlements, and now, if they persist, they could be in serious financial trouble. In some ways, the law is actually more effective than applying a criminal sanction, which has to be enforced by overstretched (and skeptical) police and prosecutors, and meet high standards of evidence. Even if the law is eventually thrown out by the High Court of Justice, in the meantime, the very threat of myriad lawsuits by determined settlers and hard right groups is enough to deter many boycott supporters, who do not have the means to conduct expensive legal battles.

This law is outrageous and wrong on so many levels; it is hard to know where to start. It punishes people for expressing an opinion, just because this opinion upsets the majority. It makes it difficult to pursue a peaceful and non-violent method of resisting the occupation. It is discriminatory in a lop-sided manner, hindering opposition to the evils of the occupation, while having nothing to say about racist boycotts of Arab workers, businesses and tenants. It aims to protect Israel and its control of the Palestinian territories from outside pressure, but surely it will only serve to highlight the country’s increasing penchant for oppression and discrimination.

The anti-boycott law’s effect is pernicious enough, but when you look at the situation it reflects, the picture becomes even grimmer. It represents a response to the growing BDS movement, but it clearly reinforces its major article of faith: that the strongest forces inside Israeli society are pushing in a dark direction, and any improvement for the Palestinians must rely on foreign intervention.

The counter-productive nature of this measure demonstrates that it is far from an ordinary act of repression. Instead, it exposes an Israeli polity that is incapable of engaging in debates, and responds to criticism with panicked attempts to silence it. It is more fearful of non-violent speech, for which it has no answer, than of violence, which it can quell with overwhelming force. In this sense, the anti-boycott law is almost a perfect encapsulation of Israel’s current predicament. And it is not a good omen.