The ‘boycott law’ won’t put an end to the BDS movement — its real importance lies in the criminalization of all opposition to the occupation.
A few months ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called for a boycott of businesses owned by Arab citizens of Israel. Such remarks — blunt racism directed at 20 percent of Israelis, regardless of their actions, opinions or political affiliations — are now well-embedded within the Israeli mainstream. Liberman himself is a legitimate coalition partner as far as either Labor or Likud are concerned. Meanwhile, the call to boycott those who profit from the occupation is now officially considered a civil offense. This is the bottom line of the High Court of Justice’s verdict, which approved the Knesset’s anti-boycott law (with the exception of a single article) on Wednesday afternoon.
The verdict is a 200-page long formidable act of legal acrobatics and eye-rolling. A boycott, the court declares, is a form of discrimination. One of the justices even goes so far as to use the Orwellian term “political act of terror.” Yet boycotting is a very common political act, both in Israel and elsewhere. There are those who boycott shops that sell animal fur, others who boycott restaurants that serve non-Kosher food, people who boycott Turkey due to its politics, and much more. All of the these take place unperturbed in broad daylight, and are often promoted by political parties, civil society organizations and public figures. And this is before we even begin to speak of racially-motivated boycotts that target the Palestinian population — these go unhindered as well. But a boycott of settlements products? Forbidden. The bottom line is that today in Israel, one can boycott anything and anyone, except the occupation.
Justice Meltzer, who wrote most of the verdict, argues that the boycott — and especially the academic boycott — “silences intellectual discourse.” In other words, it is the boycott that hurts democracy and freedom of speech. In the abstract world of the High Court, the occupation is an intellectual issue to be debated rationally in the public sphere. In reality, however, the occupation is a regime that deprives millions of their political rights, thus denying them the possibility of participating in the public decision-making process. If Palestinians had the right to vote and participate in the political sphere that determines their destiny, there would be no need for boycotts.
Israelis have no right to “democratically” decide to deny the rights of millions. Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to oppose such a decision, regardless of the majority that stands behind it. Boycotts are a nonviolent tool in this political battle, and therefore is among the most legitimate forms of opposition. It is no coincidence that the history of civil rights movements across the world includes countless examples of successful boycotts. The High Court and the Knesset have outlawed one of the most acceptable forms of political action, both in Israel and around the world, in order to sustain the occupation. It’s as simple as that.
This verdict should put an end, once and for all, to the myth of Israel’s “liberal” High Court. Just in recent years, the court has approved the Nakba Law (allowing the state to withdraw funds from institutions that teach about the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948); the “admission panels” law (allowing small communities to reject applicants based on race or ethnicity); The “citizenship law” (forbidding Arab citizens who marry non-citizen Palestinians to settle in Israel with their spouse); and now the boycott law. There were also other troubling rulings, which received little public attention, such as the one allowing Israel to operate quarries in the West Bank, profiting from the little resources Palestinians actually own, in direct violation of international law regarding occupied territories.
A broader historical look shows that the High Court never really tried to prevent any of the major measures Israel exercised in the territories it occupied in 1967. Not the land confiscations, not the settlements, not the torture, not the targeted assassinations and not the building of the separation wall on Palestinian land. However, the court did set some restrictions. In other words, it provided the legal framework for how to confiscate land and then settle it, when to torture and who to assassinate. The court was never a tool in the battle against the occupation, but rather an inherent part of its structure. Its role was to introduce the necessary adjustments between the occupation and the Israeli legal system.
Now the High Court is taking part in the poisonous turn Israel has taken — the gradual adaptation of a nationalistic, Jewish-ethnic discourse, which promotes segregation and places restrictions on ideas and thoughts. This includes a restriction on discussing the Nakba; on promoting the liberal idea of a state for all its citizens; and on using boycotts as a political tool. Unpopular ideas become illegitimate, and are later outlawed. And it all happens with the support of the High Court.
The occupation has poisoned every Israeli institution, one after the other. Universities are offering courses in propaganda (“hasbara”) while distancing themselves from “anti-Israeli” content, the media is applying more and more self-censorship, and the High Court is going places no Western democracy has been. Israel is changing its own internal code of conduct, all for the sake of maintaining its control over the Palestinians.
The boycott movement wasn’t born in Israel, and verdict will not do much to affect it. If anything, the movement is only likely to gain more ground. But a major transformation is taking place within Israeli society. Judging from the elections results — which the right is interpreting as a clear mandate to execute more of its ideas — this is only the beginning.