While I have been a frequent critic of Israeli government policies, as an Israeli living in the United States, I always felt a certain sense of pride in Israel’s ability to sustain and even enhance some of its democratic characteristics over the years.
Despite the virtually constant threat of war, the absorption of massive waves of immigrants from countries with no democratic traditions, the political dominance of the Israeli military and security establishment, and the holding of a large number of people under military rule in the occupied territories for 44 years, Israeli society within the green line has been able to demonstrate an impressive trajectory of increased civil liberties and civil society activities. In fact, I would often claim in conversations with American Jewish friends, that the Israeli government exhibited tolerance to criticism of Israel to an extent that was only rarely tolerated in Jewish communities in the United States.
Unfortunately, in the last couple of years Israeli legislators have taken a route that will soon make this claim untrue and will turn my sense of pride into shame.
From its inception, the 18th Knesset (Israel’s parliament) has been marked by a cacophony of antidemocratic inflammatory rhetoric that in many cases would have been classified as hate speech in the United States. Knesset members of the right wing parties — Likkud, Yisrael Beitenu and Ihud Leumi — have repeatedly called Arab members of the Knesset terrorists, questioned their rights, and threatened them with expulsion. The same members also attacked human rights and civil society organizations and repeatedly labeled them as “anti-Israeli” and claimed they were “aiding terrorists.”
This libel was recently repeated by Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, despite statements to the contrary by top Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers including the military advocate general, Major General Avichai Mandelblit, who went on record stating that human rights organizations were looking for the truth and aided the IDF in its investigations.”
The inflammatory rhetoric was accompanied by an unprecedented wave of anti-democratic legislation proposals mainly aimed to limit dissident civil society activity and free speech, to enhance the disenfranchisement of Arab citizens of Israel and allow segregation, and to reduce the ability of the Supreme Court to protect Israeli citizens from infringements on their rights.
The Knesset’s legal counsel has protected democracy by blocking some of these laws, in spite of their wide legislative support. Others, however, such as the Nakba law, the acceptance to communities law, and the funding from foreign state laws, have passed in relatively “watered down” versions that weakened their direct impact on civil rights but were still considered a cause for concern by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
On July 11, the Knesset violated Israel’s proud tradition of free speech when it approved the “anti-boycott law.” The “anti-boycott law” defines publishing a call to deliberately avoid economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, as a civil wrong. The law allows any individual to enforce the law by seeking damages, and it allows compensation that is not dependent on the actual damages and damages need not be proven.
The law differs from some other anti-boycott laws that exist in western countries in that it bans boycotts by individuals as opposed to organizations or companies, it uses a very wide definition of boycott, and does not require proof of effect or damages. Most importantly, the law bans the expression of opinions that support any boycott actions, revealing that the principal objective of this law is not to protect Israel from economic boycotts, but to take away from civil society in Israel a widely accepted and in some cases cherished tool of civil protest.
The law has generated widespread criticism, yielding protests in Israel by human and civil rights organizations. Activists of the left wing Meretz party responded by labeling products from the settlements, and Peace Now published a call for a boycott of settlements products in order to directly challenge the government to enforce the law.
Israel’s legal establishment, including the legal counselor of the Knesset, expressed concern that the law was “a violation of the core tenet of freedom of political expression and elements in the proposed bill are borderline illegal.” Some right wing politicians came out against the law and expressed shock, the most prominent being the speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, who published an editorial calling the law a “rotten fruit.”
In contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu forgot for a second that Israel and the United States were founded on shared values of democracy, as he often likes to mention. He bragged to the Jerusalem Post: “Don’t be confused — I authorized the bill. If I hadn’t authorized it, it wouldn’t have gotten here.”
So, what is the role of American Jews in this? Obviously, American Jews cannot support erosion of democracy in Israel, and indeed the “anti-boycott” law met with criticism by most Jewish organizations and media outlets. The Forward published an editorial with sentences crossed out in response to the law and the influential Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic called on American Jews to boycott Netanyahu.
Here in Pittsburgh, 80 members of the Jewish community signed an ad published in this newspaper calling on the Israeli government to repeal the law, and a group of concerned members of the community will hold an emergency meeting this coming Sunday. This activity does not stem from the illusion that an ad in the Jewish Chronicle and a meeting in Pittsburgh would save democracy in Israel but from the recognition that, as a person I respect put it, “silence is acquiescence.”
It is critical that we educate ourselves about the legislation, express our opposition, support civil and human rights organizations in Israel, and most importantly mobilize our community organizations to help defend Israeli democracy. Currently, there is no political force inside Israel that can oppose the madness of the 18th Knesset — a bold and unwavering call by American Jews to Israeli leaders to stop the erosion in Israeli democracy may indeed be the only way to save Israeli democracy from destroying itself.
(Naftali Kaminski is an Israeli physician living in Pittsburgh and a member of J Street Pittsburgh.)