On free speech, Israel and Iraq draw closer together

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

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli left wing activists hold signs as they demonstrate against the boycott law, in front of the Justice ministry in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 10.

Israel passed a law Monday banning calls for boycotts on products from West Bank settlements, taking a step closer to the sorts of limits on free speech that it has long derided in its Arab neighbors.

And an Arab country that the US has held up as a model for the region – Iraq – also appears taking a step backwards.

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Iraq is also seeking to restrict speech. While the laws enacted when the US was running the country were unusually liberal for the region, Iraqi politicians have steadily whittled them back into a more authoritarian shape since they took control.

So we may have just had the so-called Arab Spring, but in much of the Middle East, restraining free speech remains very much in style.

In the case of Israel, the new move comes at a time when the country's leaders have insisted that it's "the only democracy in the Middle East" in an effort to fight a shift of political support to Palestinian calls for a unilateral declaration of an independent state (the Palestinian Authority's free speech record does, however, pale in comparison to Israel's in both Gaza and the West Bank).

“The anti-boycott law is undemocratic," John Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement yesterday. "It ironically has already harmed, rather than helped, our community’s overall efforts to defeat those groups who challenge Israel’s legitimacy,"

Iraq? HRW says it has a copy of a draft law on freedom of expression that gives the government the power to prevent political protests "in the public interest," a restriction so vague and broad that it would give a sitting government a theoretical veto on all protests. "This law will undermine Iraqis’ right to demonstrate and express themselves freely,” Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork said. “Rather than creating restrictive laws, the government needs to stop attacks on critics by security forces and their proxies.”

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."

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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