Free speech in Israel was dealt a severe blow this month when the country’s Parliament passed antiboycott legislation that targets individuals or organizations publicly calling for a boycott against Israel or any area under its control.
Because I believe in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, equal rights for Palestinians and Jews, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees forced from their homes and lands in 1948, I support boycotting — and calling on others to boycott — all Israeli companies that help perpetuate these injustices.
But this new legal limit on free speech could bankrupt me.
Israeli officials will not throw me in jail for publicly supporting such boycotts, but settler groups can claim financial damages without even having to show any harm done. Furthermore, organizations supporting boycotts could be denied tax-deductible contributions and state funding. This week, I appealed the law to the high court.
Already, a member of the Knesset, our Parliament, Alex Miller, has threatened to sue me for my words — specifically my call, which I continue to make today, to boycott the illegal Jewish settlement of Ariel. Such a call would be unremarkable in a proper democracy with untrammeled free speech. The right to criticize a population that has dispossessed Palestinians and discriminated against us for decades should be protected speech.
Perhaps my parliamentary immunity will protect me, but that can readily be stripped. Moreover, parliamentary immunity will not protect Israelis who urge fellow citizens not to buy Ahava beauty products created from natural resources illegally extracted from the occupied shores of the Dead Sea and manufactured in a factory in an illegal West Bank settlement, to avoid wines from the occupied Golan Heights, or to hire construction companies other than those that build exclusive and discriminatory housing units for settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proudly taken ownership of the bill for his Likud party, declaring: “Don’t be confused — I authorized the bill. If I hadn’t authorized it, it wouldn’t have gotten here.” Given Netanyahu’s warm reception on Capitol Hill when he visited the United States a few weeks ago, I fear that most members of Congress will not offer a peep of protest, even as Israel, a key American ally that bills itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” strays into undemocratic and clearly bigoted lawmaking.
The Israeli Parliament’s antiboycott legislation is an unprecedented effort to undercut nonviolent resistance to Israeli oppression. Many people believe that making nonviolence more difficult will make violence inevitable. I do not. Approving such irresponsible and reactionary legislation highlights Israel’s long decades of injustice to Palestinians and hands us something of a political victory. Through this legislation, Israel has drawn further attention to its violent occupation of Palestinian territory and routine violations of international law.
Colonizing settlers and their elected representatives now rule Israel’s political landscape, and few dare to stand against them. This reticence in the face of repeated abuses by settlers reflects poorly on Israeli society and the U.S. government.
One of Israel’s leading newspapers, Haaretz, noted in an editorial that the antiboycott legislation “is a politically opportunistic and antidemocratic act, the latest in a series of outrageously discriminatory and exclusionary laws enacted over the past year, and it accelerates the process of transforming Israel’s legal code into a disturbingly dictatorial document. It casts the threatening shadow of criminal offense over every boycott, petition or even newspaper op-ed. Very soon, all political debate will be silenced.”
Haaretz may well be right. I prefer to believe, however, that the overreach of the extreme right in Israel will eventually rouse people of good will in the United States and Europe to put greater pressure on the Israeli government to change course. Despite the hopes of American politicians, Israel is not going to change on its own. Only very real international pressure will force the Israeli government to change. Until then, we can expect more discriminatory and undemocratic legislation from this Knesset.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli, is deputy speaker of the Israeli Parliament.