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On free speech, Israel and Iraq draw closer together

Common ground for two very different nations found by Human Rights Watch.

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While Israel's ban on boycotts is a little more specific, it also drew a complaint from HRW yesterday. "A law that punishes peaceful advocacy in opposition to government policies is a bald-faced attempt to muzzle public debate," Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. "This law attacks Israeli civil society and will turn back the clock on freedom of expression and association."

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What is the controversial new law? It allows private parties to sue anyone calling for a boycott against them due to their connection with Israel. And the private party doesn't need to prove damages – the court can assume damage was done. It also allows the government to strip benefits, like nonprofit status or eligibility for government contracts, from anyone who calls for a boycott. The targets are Arab Israelis and members of the Israeli Jewish left who say it's immoral to buy products from settlements in the occupied West Bank or Golan Heights (the law specifically says it applies to all areas "under Israel control").

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch supporter of the law, insisted in the Knesset yesterday that the law doesn't hurt Israel's democratic credentials. "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.

More generally this is a response to growing but still very small international calls for BDS – "boycott, divest, sanction" – reflecting acute Israeli unease with efforts to paint the country as going the route of apartheid South Africa. In essence, the Knesset has tried to legislate away a small problem with a major new restraint on the rights of its own citizens. Haaretz reports today that 32 Israeli legal academics signed a petition that says the new law is undemocratic.

“From a legal perspective, we’re talking about restrictions on political expression, when the restrictions are not neutral with regard to worldview, but are aimed at promoting one viewpoint and subjugating another, a clear expression of the tyranny of the majority," Alon Harel of Hebrew University told the paper.

MK Alex Miller, a supporter of the bill, has wasted no time. He says he plans to sue fellow MK Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian-Israeli, since Mr. Tibi has called for a boycott on goods produced in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, where Mr. Miller resides.

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