ACRI Letter to MK Rotem: Boycott Bill

7 September 2010

MK David Rotem
Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee

Members of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee
The Knesset, Jerusalem

Dear Sirs,

Re: Bill on Banning Boycotts, 2010

Ahead of the committee’s discussion of the bill, scheduled for 20 September 2010, we are honored to present you with our position regarding the Bill on Banning Boycotts, 2010 (p/18/2505).

We would like to state straight away that ACRI is against the said bill, believing this kind of legislation might harm the freedom of expression, protest, and congregation of the residents and citizens of the State of Israel who wish to protest against things they consider socially or politically wrong. A boycott is a legitimate, legal, and nonviolent instrument of political or social change, protest, and criticism. Though certain parts of the Israeli public may find such or other boycott initiatives upsetting or irritating, there is no dispute that it is a customary instrument employed throughout the enlightened world and in Israel, where it is occasionally used by the all groups on the political spectrum.

The proposed bill does not only wish to ban the use of a legitimate and common protest instrument, thus impairing on the freedom of expression, protest, and congregation of all groups on the political spectrum, right and left, but it appears that the said bill is discriminatory by nature. Having read the bill and its accompanying explanatory notes, we realized that its initiators envisioned only a specific kind of boycott initiatives that they wish to restrict – e.g., occupation-related boycotts (imposed on products made in the territories, or against the academia). Such a selective bill intends to restrict the expression of only a certain type of views that the current political majority in the Knesset does not approve of. This might harm and destabilize the Israeli democracy.

The bill might have the following negative and dangerous consequences:

1. As noted above, this bill, as well as other bills promoted at this time by the Knesset, is non-egalitarian in restricting the activities of only specific political groups and holders of certain views merely because the current political majority does not like them. Namely, the promoted bill is an illegitimate way to silence political rivals.

2. The bill attempts to avoid dealing with legitimate political, social, and legal criticism of the state and its actions by gravely and dangerously impairing on the basic rights and principles of the democratic system. Please remember that while criticism may be unpleasant and even economically or politically damaging, democracy must not silence it, but deal with it in legitimate ways.

3. In addition to harming basic democratic principles, the bill’s wording raises several other problems. Among other things, it proposes that any criticism leveled at the government or the state, which might later serve as grounds for a boycott call, should be addressed by the law too. This is an attempt to silence any and all such criticism. This cooling effect poses a threat against the Israeli democracy.

4. Additionally, the bill proposes to ban “aid or information extended in an attempt to promote (a boycott).” This is a most problematic instruction because any publication might serve anyone for the promotion of boycotts by others, while the bill singles out the publishers as offenders while their blame could not be (practically speaking) examined or disproved.

5. The bill proposes imposing illegal forms of punishment (such as freezing the payment of debts to other countries and using those funds to compensate parties harmed by the boycott).

6. The bill might impair on ties between Israel and its residents on the one hand and foreign residents or states on the other, which would come on top of the negative and antidemocratic image such legislation might create for Israel on the international arena. Further negative implications of this bill might follow from the intention to make the state employ illegitimate and semi-legal means to punish foreign citizens or states held involved in boycotts against Israel. The proposed measures include an Israeli refusal to pay its debts to those states while using these funds to compensate parties offended by the boycott; banning foreign nationals from entering Israel for lengthy periods; and denying foreign nationals and states from conducting legitimate and legal business with Israelis or in Israel.

7. Even if the bill intends to single out only a certain type of boycott, it practically delegitimizes the use of boycotts as a legitimate protest instrument, referring to various kinds of boycotts, including ones imposed by private consumers. We feel we should point out to you that Israeli citizens and residents have been using that instrument to protest against various social and political issues and to promote all kinds of causes. Only recently, MK Yehimovich and others called on the public to boycott Bank Hamizrahi (close their accounts there) over what they perceived as moral corruption (wage gaps). For many years, the ultra-Orthodox have been promoting boycotts against chain stores that work on the Sabbath. Many Israelis, including organizations and labor unions, chose to boycott Turkey and not to shop for vacations there (which, it should be stressed, is a form of political protest against another country(!) which is a move that the said bill opposes when it comes to Israel). Attempts were made to prevent donors from contributing to, or to boycott lecturers from Israeli universities whose views the boycott organizers dubbed as “non-Zionist.” There are many more examples. According to the spirit of the said bill, these acts would be illegal (and if the bill initiators should try to distinguish between types of boycotts and argue that one kind is legitimate while another is not, it would become clear that they merely intend to silence political rivals).

8. The bill might eventually cover a wide variety of activities that could be interpreted as boycotts; for example, moves by organizations that classify companies according to degrees of observing laborer’s rights, environmental values, and so on, might be viewed as promoting or assisting in the promotion of boycotts according to the spirit and logic of the proposed bill.

Additionally, we would like to address remarks made in the bill’s explanatory note, which claim that similar laws exist in the United States. We must make clear that there is no real similarity between the US Law and the proposed bill. First, the intention of the American law that addresses this issue (which was introduced in the 1970’s in view of the Arab boycott) was to prevent American companies from falling under pressures that would make them collaborate with other countries while conflicting with the US foreign policy. Contrary to the explanatory note of the bill in question, the American law does not ban US citizens or companies from initiating, partaking, or assisting in boycotts against any American policy. Indeed, the boycott is one of the most popular instruments of political and social protest and change in the United States. Furthermore, the American law does not authorize filing private suits against parties involved in boycotts, and only offers the Administration an option to examine and address cases, when it so chooses, in an attempt to prevent the abuse of the law and harm to the freedom of expression and protest.

In summary, we would like to point out again that an economic or academic boycott, as appalling as it might be, is a legitimate, legal, and nonviolent instrument of political and social struggle.

In recent years, we have witnessed various boycott initiatives in Israel and abroad regarding a variety of issues. Even if they are disputed or upsetting, these initiatives are part of the Israeli and global discourse and as such, democratic countries may not ban them by the power of the law.

Dealing with criticism, even if it is unpleasant and might have economic or other consequences, should be kept within the boundaries of the democratic game. This grave bill is yet another attempt to further restrict Israel’s democratic space, as we close ourselves in while trying to avoid domestic and foreign criticism.

We urge you to vote against the said bill.

Attorney Debbie Gild-Hayo
Director of Policy Advocacy, ACRI

Attorney Dan Yakir
Chief Legal Advisor, ACRI

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Categories: Anti-Democratic Initiatives, Democracy and Civil Liberties, Freedom of Expression

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