Israel and the Anti-Boycott Law: The Wider Implications of Popular Indifference

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy where it was published on 19 July. A small part of it appeared in my earlier post on the anti-boycott law (13 July).
The motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal – and that is something altogether more far-reaching.
International Jewish and non-Jewish condemnation of the anti-boycott law passed by the Israeli Knesset on 11 July, which makes it an offence for citizens to either advocate or implement an academic, consumer or cultural boycott of Israel, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank, continues to mount. But the man responsible for sponsoring and driving through the legislation, MK Zeev Elkin, chairman of the coalition and a resident of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is unrepentant. Asked if he thought the new law would cause Israel international damage, he replied: ‘In the long run, I think not.’ Elkin and his Knesset colleagues are confidently turning their backs on domestic and international opposition to the new law, secure in the knowledge that the majority of the Israeli public supports it.
While that confidence may be misplaced, given that the law will almost certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court (although there is no guarantee that any challenge will succeed), there is no gainsaying the power now being wielded by Knesset members intent on cracking down on the very existence of dissenting voices in Israeli civil society – all the way from parents’ groups opposing the militarization of Israeli society to the appointees to the Supreme Court – and on any institutions that are less than wholeheartedly fervent in their expression of uncompromising nationalist and anti-Arab/Palestinian enthusiasm. Just how successful they are in driving the political agenda can be seen in the fact that while Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior political figures absented themselves from the vote, presumably because they were concerned about international reaction, after the event Bibi belatedly felt obliged to place himself in the vanguard of the campaign to enact the anti-boycott law by making a public statement taking credit for it: ‘Don’t be confused—I authorized the bill. If I hadn’t authorized it, it wouldn’t have gotten here.’ He rejected the idea that the law is anti-democratic: ‘What stains [Israel’s] image are those savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy’s attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not’, he said.

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem, Wkicommons

 The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem – Hope for Salvation. Wikicommons.

The furore over the new law did just about make it onto the pages of national newspapers and broadcast news bulletins in the UK and other countries, but with so little coverage of events in Israel and Palestine recently, observers may find it hard to judge what the wider implications of this current controversy may be. The fact that even right-wing organs of opinion in Israel, like the Jerusalem Post, staunch Jewish institutional defenders of Israel and its government, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and NGO Monitor and a politically hawkish diaspora Jewish periodical, like the UK’s Jewish Chronicle and many other non-left wing voices have attacked the law for being a dangerous infringement of freedom of speech could give the impression that the Israeli Zionist right has gone too far and is about to be reined in. Or that this is some kind of aberration in a society known for the unfettered character of its public debate. Regrettably, neither of these optimistic conclusions can be justified.

‘The tail is wagging the dog’

Most Israelis are utterly opposed to a boycott of their country and would probably argue that advocates of a boycott are motivated by antisemitism. They would therefore view the aims of the law as uncontentious and would not be troubled by accusations that it undermines freedom of speech. If such freedom gives licence to people to propose measures that would lead to the destruction of the state, many Israelis would no doubt regard it as one freedom well worth curbing. But the motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal—and that is something altogether more far-reaching. As the Labour MK, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’. In other words it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. Or in Bradley Burston’s words: ‘The measure erases the legal differentiation between settlements and Israel proper, regarding targeted boycotts against goods from the settlements as actions harmful to the state of Israel itself.’

This move can hardly have come as a surprise to Israelis, Israel’s supporters in Jewish communities worldwide and those governments, particularly in the west, that are sympathetic to Israel’s definition of its existential concerns. In reality, the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. And since the advent of the Netanyahu government in 2009, any limitations on this process have been greatly weakened. The prime minister may have rhetorically accepted the 2-state solution, but all his actions – or perhaps it would be better to speak of his inactions – have been designed to prevent its implementation. In the absence of any serious government peace initiatives and as a result of the government’s refusal to halt settlement building, the political initiative has been ceded decisively to the settlers and their political allies. As Yossi Vertersummed it up: ‘there is no government in Israel and no head of government. The tail is wagging the dog. Junior MKs dictate the national agenda to the government.’ It’s as if the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole.

Sliding down the anti-democratic slope

The anti-boycott law is just one of a slew of anti-democratic, racist and repressive measures introduced mostly by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) MKs since the 2009 general election. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) monitors these developments. At the end of July last year it produced a list of the top 14 anti-democratic Knesset bills. Some have passed into law, like the Naqba law, which prohibits the use of taxpayers’ funds to commemorate the establishment of the state of Israel as a tragedy – a direct attack on the Palestinians’ perception of their experience of 1948 – and the anti-boycott law. Others are still under, or are awaiting, consideration (and often subject to political infighting between the main right-wing parties). For example, the foreign state funding bill, which targets left-wing political organizations and human rights groups in order to curb their activities, and a bill giving the Knesset veto power over appointments of Supreme Court justices, by means of hearings for candidates in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – a proposal that Likud MKs were already announcing, to the excitement of the Likud central committee, as their next legislative project barely 48 hours after the vote on anti-boycott bill. It’s true that Netanyahu, only hours later, publicly stated that the government would oppose this second bill and protect the Supreme Court, but his behaviour over the boycott law suggests that such commitments are distinctly flaky.

The targets of these illiberal measures – the NGO sector – are doing what they can to fight back against the attacks on their credibility and very existence. But there is no public groundswell of support for them. On the contrary, there seems to be a popular appetite for, or at least an indifference to, the undermining of individual human rights and the bolstering of the tyrannical power of the hard-line Zionist right-wing in the Knesset. Much of the comment in Israel objecting to the anti-boycott law focused very specifically on the principle of freedom of speech, almost in abstract, and showed no sympathy for the aims and objectives of the human rights NGOs or the groups defending the rights of Palestinian-Israelis. As the columnist Carlo Strenger put it:  ‘The result of Netanyahu and Lieberman’s systematic fanning of Israeli’s existential fears is tangible in Israel: polls show that Israelis are deeply pessimistic about peace; they largely do not trust Palestinians, and in the younger generation belief in democratic values is being eroded.’

Embracing isolation

In a society where there is increasing sympathy for the notion of ‘transfer’ – the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and of Palestinian citizens from Israel – as well as growing hostility to foreign workers, attacks on academic freedom, a religious right unashamedly propagating racist measures against Arabs, accentuation of the character of Israel as a specifically ‘Jewish’ state in which rights of citizenship vary according to religious or ethnic identity, the anti-boycott law will only strengthen the growing international perception that Israel’s citizenship values diverge from those in the countries with which it most likes to associate itself, especially the United States. These trends have been accentuated ever since the pro-democracy character of the Arab uprisings became clear. As Paul Pillar wrote in the National Interest: ‘Not only have the demands for popular sovereignty in Arab countries highlighted the deprivation of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs; to the extent that democracy emerges in any Arab countries, it undercuts the old we’re-the-only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East argument that repeatedly gets served up to Americans.’

The situation is made even worse by the failure of right-wing Israeli politicians to understand the international climate. There is certainly hostility to Israel across the region but the prevailing Israeli mindset, reinforced by the kind of scenes we saw when the US congress lapped up every intransigent word and phrase of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech in late May, refuses to recognize that the state has anything to answer for and sees its image problem almost entirely as a matter of improving the country’s public relations. The popular mood is both sullen and self-satisfied. Carlo Strenger writes: ‘Ordinary citizens in Israel don’t trust the world; its politicians are richly rewarded for noisy declarations of undying patriotism and for defying the world.’ Israelis are understandably tired of constant wars and international vilification. On the other hand, many Israelis would agree that ‘Israel is currently experiencing one of the finest periods in its history’: low unemployment, booming tourism, radically reduced fears about security, the introduction of major reforms in transport, education and communication.

If this combination of aggressive nationalism, a political leadership devoid of principle and led by the nose by anti-democratic parliamentary factions, a drive to silence the country’s ‘fifth column’ and disloyal ‘alien’ elements, a mounting sense of regional isolation and the celebration of the fruits of a kind of economic autarky—if all this is reminiscent of incipient or proto-fascism, it’s an observation made by many worried and loyal Israelis in recent months and years. Ha’aretz’s Burston writes about ‘learning about fascism one step at a time’. ‘I’m learning that the success of the Boycott Bill is a textbook case of the quiet appeal, the brilliant disguise, the endlessly adaptable expertise in the workings of democracy, that help explain the progress of fascism in our time. So this is what I’ve found out so far: At first, it doesn’t feel like fascism. That’s why it works.’ Last November, the Director of ACRI told me that ‘proto-fascism is becoming normal’.

Significance of the diaspora Jewish response

Finally, the response of diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel to the new law is undoubtedly significant. Despite a shift to the right in recent years, Jews are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. While some have become disillusioned with the culture of human rights, because they believe that bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are grossly unfair in singling out Israel for condemnation, many still care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect very many such Jews have a bifurcated attitude on the question of boycott. They may well support, even if only by personal action, the boycott of produce from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but they are utterly opposed to boycotting universities or businesses in Israel. They argue that it would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning such views is the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.

How ironic then, or even tragic, that such good friends of Israel have been consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state. Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation. But it’s clear that they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel. Now such Jews must face the fact that ‘the settlements have annexed the state of Israel’.

Some commentators see a glimmer of hope in the broadly negative response to the law across the mainstream political spectrum in the Jewish diaspora. I find myself feeling far less sanguine. If enlightened Jews persist in holding to this illusory image of Israel, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, they become part of the problem and not the solution. Israeli political leaders can continue to wrap themselves in the language of Jewish peoplehood with impunity—a very important weapon in their armoury: Jews worldwide, whether they like it or not, are enlisted as transnational allies in the state’s lone stand against the forces of regional and international darkness.

It’s not the law itself that matters, it’s the history that’s produced it, the context out of which it has emerged, the trends that look set to continue irrespective of what actually happens to the law. There’s no easy way out of this morass. But at a panel discussion on the Arab uprisings and the Israel-Palestine conflict, organized by Independent Jewish Voices on 14 July at Birkbeck, University of London, Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor cut to the quick when he said there’ll never be any real change until, ‘Israel reconciles itself with the Palestinians’.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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