Everything you (never) wanted to know about Israel’s anti-boycott law

A reader’s guide to democracy’s darkest hour.


What does the law say?

Basically, the anti-boycott law allows all those who feel they have been harmed by a boycott, whether against Israel or an Israeli institution or territory (i.e. the settlements in the West Bank) to sue the person or organization who publicly called for it, for compensation. This definition is very broad—even a simple call not to visit a place falls under it—and most importantly, the plaintiff doesn’t even have to prove damages.

You can read the full text of the law here (it’s not long). The important part is below (translation by ACRI):

Definition:

1. In this bill, “a boycott against the State of Israel” – deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another actor 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.

Boycott – a civil wrong:

A.     Knowingly publishing a public call for a boycott against the State of Israel will be considered a civil wrong to which the civil tort law [new version] applies, if according to the content and circumstances of the publication there is reasonable probability that the call will bring about a boycott and he who published the call was aware of this possibility.

B.     In regards to clause 62 [A] of the civil tort law [new version], he who causes a binding legal agreement to be breached by calling for a boycott against the State of Israel will not be viewed as someone who operated with sufficient justification.

C.     If the court finds that an wrong according to this law was deliberately carried out, it will be authorized to compel the person who did the wrongdoing to pay damages that are not dependent on the damage (in this clause – damages, for example); in calculating the sum of the damages for example, the court will take into consideration, among other things, the circumstances under which the wrong was carried out, its severity and its extent.

Check out Roi Maor’s analysis of the implications of this law and what it will mean:

[The boycott law] 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.

How come this law passed three Knesset votes?

The key moment in the legislation process was a decision by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government (and by him personally, as he told the Knesset on Wednesday) to have the entire coalition back the law. This means that the law will have the automatic support of most of the Knesset members, and that even coalition members who oppose it won’t be able to vote against it. Once the bill passed Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee—controlled by the Right—it was cleared for the two final votes, which took place Monday night.

So, how did Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak vote?

They didn’t. They avoided the vote. See the full roll-call from the Knesset vote.

When will the law take effect?

It already did. Starting yesterday (Tuesday), it is illegal to call for a settlement boycott in Israel. The only part of the law which is not effective yet is article 4, which deals with the punishment of organizations that support a boycott (they will be stripped of their special statutes). This article, which is seen as a backdoor way to persecuting civil society and left-wing organizations (more on this issue here), will come into effect in 90 days.

Yesterday an Israeli Beitenu MK already threatened Arab MK Ahmed Tibi that he will be the first to feel the effect of the new law. “Whoever shows contempt for the law and stomps on it will be responsible for the outcome,” MK Miller told MK Tibi in the Knesset.

Is it really so bad? I heard there is a similar law in the U.S., and that in France, a court punished some group calling for boycott on Israel.

Those examples are very different from the Israeli law. The U.S. legislation refers to boycotts by foreign governments, and the French case had to do with a unique interpretation to a law concerning discrimination. In fact, a Knesset research report, prepared during the legislative process, concluded that it couldn’t find examples of similar laws in Western democracies, and resorted to citing examples from countries such as Venezuela, Eritrea and Ethiopia. As a result, the Knesset’s legal advisor filed an opinion stating that it would be very hard to defend this law in the High Court of Justice. The State Attorney thinks it is a “borderline case,” but said he is willing to defend the law in court.

What about the High Court? I hear that it is likely to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

For that, Israel would need to have a constitution… But the answer is yes, many think that the court will kill the law, or parts of it, and petitions on this issue has already been filed. A decision, however, will take time, and more importantly, it might gravely hurt the Court’s own status, as it will be perceived to be acting against the will of the public (the right to override the Knesset is not formally granted to the Israeli High Court, and therefore lies at the heart of a political controversy). Already, leading politicians have warned the court not to intervene on this issue, threatening to limit its power. This has become a true watershed moment for Israel.

Furthermore, there are those on the left who believe that going to court would play into the hands of those who initiated the boycott law, and ultimately strengthen the ability of the Right to introduce similar pieces of legislation. Read this though-provoking piece from Yossi Gurvitz on this issue.

What about the Israeli public? Does it support this law?

Right now, yes. A poll found that 52 percent of the public supported the anti-boycott law, while only 31 percent opposed it.

Mike Asks: Is full boycott illegal as well?

Yes. for example, if an Israeli writes a letter to an foreign artist and suggests he cancel his gig in Tel Aviv as long as the occupation goes on, he could potentially be sued by the producer, and any other person who thinks this act might harm him. I guess that even by a bartender could sue – and he or she wouldn’t have to prove damages. Calls for boycotts of academic institutions are illegal too.

Alex asks regarding foreign nationals in Israel — does the law include them too?

Yes. When in Israel, one must obey Israeli law, and is subject to civil law concerning damages. From what I understand from ACRI (Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which has been in the frontline of the struggle against the law), the anti-boycott law would include foreign nationals as well – as long as they make the boycott call while in Israel. One reservation is that it’s not a criminal law, so you need someone to actually sue you for damages, and the court needs to be able to collect those damages. My guess is that if this law remains active,  right-wing and settler organizations will become serial plaintiffs of boycotts in order to silence dissent, and, of course, make some money on the way.

The law doesn’t apply to foreign nationals in the West Bank, which is under military rule and not Israeli civil law.

How about Israelis abroad?

The law should apply to Israelis everywhere in the world, so theoretically, if a “Boycott from Within” activist gives a lecture in London, he could be sued by a fellow citizen upon his return to Israel. Still, it seems that suing over offenses committed abroad will be more complicated; check out Woody’s comment from 12:51 p.m. for a discussion of some of the problems it raises. I could only add that with every new law—not just this one—it’s hard to predict the outcome of such borderline cases. We can only await the rulings of Israeli courts to see how they interpret the law.

Is discussing or repealing the law legal?

Yes it is. Remember that it is not a criminal law but a civil one, so as long as you don’t advocate boycott while repealing the law, nobody has cause to sue you.

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You can write your questions on the boycott law in the comments, and I will do my best to answer them.