WASHINGTON — Backers of a new Israeli law penalizing anyone who targets Israel or West Bank settlements for boycotts tout it as a tool to fight back against anti-Israel campaigns, but American Jewish organizations seem remarkably united in deeming the measure an affront to freedom of expression.
“We’re disappointed that they passed the law,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for the Jewish public policy groups.
“We don’t support boycotts,” he said, adding that “The law does challenge democracy in a way, and hopefully the Supreme Court will respond.”
“Not since ‘Who is a Jew?’ ” has there been a controversy that could seriously strain relations between Israel and American Jews, said one pro-Israel heavyweight, referring to the early 1980s battle. “Oy! Who needs it?”
The Knesset enacted the law late Monday night by a vote of 47 to 38 after hours of fierce debate. The legislation, initiated by Likud Knesset member Ze’ev Elkin, allows advocates of boycotts against Israel or areas under its control to be sued for monetary damages by those who are hurt by the boycotts. It also prohibits the Israeli government from doing business with companies that comply with such boycotts.
A number of liberal Israeli nongovernmental organizations and civil rights groups are mounting legal challenges to the law.
In America, negative feeling toward the measure seems to span the ideological spectrum, from J Street on the left to the Zionist Organziation of America on the right.
Morton Klein, the ZOA’s president, said he was still examining the law, but that in principle the ZOA opposed anti-boycott laws.
“Nobody was more appalled by the boycott of Ariel theater than me, but to make it illegal? I don’t think so,” Klein told JTA, referring to calls by some Israeli artists to boycott a performing arts center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Supporters of the law in Israel say it is a necessary counter measure to boycott efforts.
“It’s a principle of democracy that you don’t shun a public you disagree with by harming their livelihood,” Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said during the debate on the bill, according to Ynet. “A boycott on a certain sector is not the proper manifestation of freedom of expression.”
The Anti-Defamation League, however, suggested in a public statement that the legislation is not the appropriate way to combat boycotts.
“To legally stifle calls to action — however abhorrent and detrimental they might be — is a disservice to Israeli society,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “We hope Israel’s Supreme Court will quickly take up a review of this law and resolve the concerns it raises. “
In an interview, Foxman expressed concern that in any case, a degree of damage was done to Israel by the law, even if the courts eventually quash it.
“The people who wanted it will say, `We introduced it, we argued for it, we got it passed,’ and the people who think it’s contrary to democracy will have their victory in the court,” he said. “People are playing politics with an issue that does Israel damage.”
Centrist American Jewish groups in the past year have pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government twice to contain what they perceived as damaging hearings in the Knesset, one targeting human rights groups and the other J Street.
Joining the ADL in issuing statements condemning the law were an array of dovish Jewish groups that included the New Israel Fund, J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
“When you start to persecute unpopular opinions, there really is no end point,” said Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington, fielding what it said was “not a small amount” of calls seeking clarification on the matter, reflected what appeared to be ambivalence on the law by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was absent for the Knesset vote. The embassy was telling those with queries, “This is a matter of controversy in Israel, and it would appear that it will have to be heard by the High Court of Justice, as in any democracy.”
The Obama administration was measured as well in responding to the law. An administration official told JTA that the law was an internal matter, but also pointed to democratic values shared by Israel and the United States, including free speech.
The bill defines “boycott” as “deliberately avoiding 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, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage,” according to a translation of the legislation provided by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
The legislation applies not only to boycotts targeting all of Israel but also those aimed at “an area under its control” — meaning that Israelis who support boycotting West Bank settlements would be vulnerable under the law.