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Israel takes action against boycotters. Is that counterproductive?

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Israel sees the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement as a significant threat, but by barring foreign supporters of BDS from entering the country, critics say, it is harming democracy and isolating itself further.

In this Oct. 31, 2012 file photo, French demonstrators and supporters of Palestinians hold a placard with the word "Boycott" during a demonstration in Paris. Israel has stepped up its battle against international critics with a new law that bard entry to foreign supporters of the BDS boycott movement.
Jacques Brinon/AP/File
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  • Joel Greenberg
    Correspondent

A law passed by parliament this week to bolster Israel’s defenses against what it sees as a significant external threat – the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement – is being criticized here as violating free speech and damaging democracy.

The law stipulates that Israel will not grant entry visas or residence permits to foreign individuals or members of organizations that have "issued a public call to impose a boycott on the State of Israel … or committed to participate in such a boycott."

Critics say that by shutting the country’s gates to foreign dissenters, the law is “counterproductive” and, paradoxically, amounts to an Israeli boycott of the world.

Sponsors of the bill say it is primarily designed to keep out foreign activists from the BDS movement, which has gained traction in the United States and Europe in recent years. The movement urges consumers to boycott Israeli products, calls on companies not to do business with Israel, and has urged performing artists not to appear in the country.

The BDS movement also calls for an end to Israeli occupation of lands seized in the 1967 Middle East war, equal rights for Israel's Arab citizens, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced in the 1948 war that followed the establishment of Israel.

Roy Folkman, one of the Israeli lawmakers who sponsored the bill, said it was designed to target people active in the BDS movement. "The law refers to activists in organizations that delegitimize Israel and who are waging a public war against Israel," he said. "This is a different kind of battle, against groups who want to harm Israel economically and undermine its legitimacy."

Critics say bill fits a pattern

Critics of the bill argue that it is part of a pattern of stifling dissent, and an attempt to keep out people whose views contradict those of the Israeli government, especially regarding its policies toward Palestinians. They note that among the people excluded under the bill would be those calling for a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements, not a total boycott of Israel.

Those potentially affected would include more than 70 prominent American academics and intellectuals who published an open letter in the New York Review of Books in October calling for a "targeted boycott" of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, expressing their opposition to an economic, political or cultural boycott of Israel proper. The letter has since garnered more than 300 signatures.

"It's as if we are the ones boycotting the world, isolating ourselves, not willing to hear criticism and allow in people who disagree with the government's policies," said Amir Fuchs, director of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank. "The law is counterproductive, because it promotes an image of Israel as a nonpluralistic country that is not prepared to hear uncomfortable views."

Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker from the leftist Meretz party, charged in a parliamentary debate on the bill that it was designed "to impose political censorship on opponents of the occupation and supporters of human rights."

Writing in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, Chemi Shalev, a prominent columnist, asserted that "every incident in which a supporter of boycotting settlements will be stopped at Ben-Gurion Airport and sent back home after being interrogated by the border police about his statements and thoughts will drive another nail into the coffin of Israel's image as an enlightened, democratic and ultimately rational state."

In recent months the Israeli authorities have taken other steps that have heightened a sense among liberal Israelis that the government is trying to restrict opponents of its policies toward the Palestinians.

NGOs already targeted

A researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, was denied a work visa last month, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the group of being hostile to Israel and serving Palestinian propaganda. The group has published reports critical of human rights violations by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas.

A theologian with the World Council of Churches, Isabel Apawo Phiri, was refused entry at Israel's international airport in December amid government claims that her organization supported the BDS movement, a charge the council denied.

In another incident last month, Jennifer Gorovitz, vice president of the US-based New Israel Fund, which supports Israeli human rights groups and other progressive nongovernmental organizations in Israel, was stopped for questioning at the airport about her organization's activities, with interrogators focusing on possible work with Palestinians.

A law passed last year requires Israeli human rights NGO's who receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to declare it in their reports, communications with officials, and public messages.

The new law barring boycott advocates "violates the most basic tenets of democracy by making political opinions a consideration that may prevent non-citizens from entering Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a joint statement with Adalah, a group that that advocates for Israeli Arabs. 

"Those seeking to enter the country most certainly need not align their political positions with those of the current Israeli government regarding the occupation," the groups said.