Israel’s Chilling New Law

The U.S. should stand for free speech no matter who's violating it

“We could get in trouble for this,” begins a July 13 editorial titled “We Can’t Say This” from from The Jewish Daily Forward.

The trouble comes with Israel’s new anti-boycott bill, which was approved by the Knesset on Monday, and which the Forward says will make “the boundaries of free speech and legitimate expression” in Israel “unpredictably and suffocatingly tight.”

The law makes calling for boycotts against Israel or its West Bank settlements a punishable offense. It will go into effect in less than 90 days.

For effect and “just in case”—the Forward’s editorials and content are published in Israel’s English-language Haaretz newspaper on Sundays—sentences were struck throughout the editorial:

So, for example, if we say something like: We can understand why reasonable people could advocate a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank because those settlements are deemed illegal under international law and because a boycott is a peaceful way of expressing a moral concern — well, if we say something like that, we could be sued and held liable in civil court. And that court could award financial recompense to the plaintiff not according to actual damage done to his income if, for instance, we suggested that people refrain from buying his oranges or his facial cream, but according to what he thinks he might lose in the future.

The new law has drawn considerable criticism—the term “fascism” has been thrown around— from the Israeli and Jewish presses, civil rights groups and observers around the world.

In addition to the Forward’s commentary, David Harris-Gershon, an American writer who contributes to The Jerusalem Post, expressed concern that the law will have consequences for his journalism: “I have been muzzled,” writes Harris-Gershon.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reacted to the news with the rallying cry, “Maybe it’s Time for American Jews to Boycott Netanyahu” and writes:

The anti-boycott law, which would allow people who claim to have been financially victimized by calls for boycotts to sue those who call for such boycotts, without offering proof of damages, is obviously meant to intimidate into silence Israelis exercising their right to speak freely.

Yet almost completely silent on the boycott bill has been the US State Department, an agency, which, at most times and places, tends to have strong feelings when foreign governments restrict basic freedoms.

The Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday that the State Department called the law “an internal Israeli matter” and expressed only “muted criticism” in the form of a reminder that “freedom of expression and the right to protest and organize are basics right under democracy.”

Yesterday, under the headline “Anti-boycott law not yet making diplomatic waves” the paper quoted a State official saying “Israel has a history of a healthy democracy, and this law is a product of the democratic process of Israel.” Meanwhile, the British ambassador to Israel publicly spoke out against the law and the EU has expressed concern.

The State Department, particularly over the last few years, has made freedom of speech and expression a large part of its message. It has taken China to task for its Internet censorship. It has condemned repressive practices in Iran and throughout the Middle East this Arab Spring, while cheerleading the use social media to organize, protest and take down undemocratic regimes peacefully. At times, the State Department’s exuberance to uphold these freedoms in foreign lands has raised sovereignty issues: it made sure Twitter didn’t go down before the Green Revolution did and has, according to James Glanz and John Markoff’s piece in The New York Times last month, embarked upon an effort to “deploy ‘shadow’ Internet and mobile phone systems” to undermine government repression and censorship abroad.

Freedom of expression is of course a noble and worthy goal to stand for. But it’s not a principle to stand for selectively, when ginning up conditions for regime change, or when diplomatically convenient. (Israel is not the only ally that gets a blind eye.) It’s cases like this that give America its global reputation for hypocrisy.

Few expect Israel’s anti-boycott law will stand up to eventual challenge in Israel’s Supreme Court. Until that happens, this chilling law deserves all the criticism it gets.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: