Israel has always championed itself as a bastion of democracy, particularly in the Middle East, a region in which most governments are authoritarian. However, the passage of a boycott bill on July 11 threatens to puts Israel in the same category as repressive Arab regimes under whose rule freedom of speech is virtually non-existent.
The bill criminalizes support of boycotts against Israel and its occupation, be it economic, cultural or academic. This means that individuals and organizations that support such a boycott are subject to heavy fines and lawsuits. An organization can even lose its legal status and be ineligible for tax-deductible contributions.
It’s clear that the bill is meant to target the Palestinian minority in Israel and is about settlements, but irrespective of the politics behind the bill, there’s no denying it is a major blow to freedom of expression in Israel.
Those defending the bill have tried to liken it to a piece of legislation in the US that penalizes US companies for supporting the boycott of Israel “sponsored by the Arab League and certain Muslim countries.” The Israeli bill targets individuals, unlike the American law, which targets governments that call for boycotting Israel. This is a huge difference.
Despite its efforts to find a similar legislative act anywhere in the world, a commission set up for this very purpose by the Israeli parliament failed to find anything even remotely similar.
Perhaps this is because curbing freedom of speech and expression in democratic societies goes against the essence of democracy. (Maybe Israel should have studied the Taliban government in Afghanistan pre-2001.)
This law follows a list of legislative acts − including Israel’s refusal to release funds to Palestinian government − are aimed at stifling any public debate on how Israel behaves in matters of administration.
Those debating the merits of the “Boycott Law” in the Israeli parliament had genuine concerns about the threats it would pose to freedom of speech, while others were worried how the international community would perceive Israel. However, the right-wing lobby in the parliament is concerned only with keeping the enemy out (read Palestinian bad guys) and has lost perspective on the value of free speech.
This is more than just one stand-alone law. It is the beginning of a shift towards totalitarianism in Israel’s political sphere.
It is hard to imagine how this hostile anti-democratic climate would benefit any peace process with the Palestinians. If this continues it won’t be Palestinians who are under siege, but the very residents whom Israel purports to protect.
(Muna Khan, Senior Correspondent of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)