Now Israel plans to boycott the boycotters

A proposed Israeli bill to punish groups that call for boycotts is the ugly conclusion to today’s shallow Israel-bashing.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Rarely these days is the word ‘boycott’ not followed by ‘Israel’. From British academics and Spanish gay festival organisers to American pop stars and EU bureaucrats, refusing to engage with Israelis has gone mainstream. Now, the Israeli government has responded to the global boycott brigade, but not in the way the boycotters might have hoped for.

Instead of promising to dismantle the settlements, end the blockade on Gaza or broker a peace deal – solutions that might have satisfied some of the Western boycottistas at least – the Israeli Knesset is considering a bill that seeks to criminalise the promotion of boycotts against any Israeli individual, organisation or manufacturer. It is a boycott on boycotts.

Twenty-five members of Knesset (MKs) have tabled the Prohibition on Imposing a Boycott bill which, if passed into law, will prevent Israelis from initiating or promoting boycotts against the state of Israel. Those who fail to comply will face hefty fines. Foreign individuals, organisations and governments that instigate or support boycotts will also be subject to fines, economic sanctions and entry bans. Foreigners involved in coordinating boycotts would be banned from entering Israel for at least 10 years.

To Israel’s critics, this bill will be further proof of its hawkishness and arrogance. But boycotters will also likely find the initiative extremely irritating, because, while there has been much back-slapping amongst international boycotters since the Gaza flotilla incident in the end of May inspired several international artists, businesses and sports associations to join the boycott movement, it looks as if Israel has found a way of taking control of the situation. If this bill is passed into law, it will signal the Israeli government turning the tables on those around the world who are calling for divestment, sanctions and disengagement.

But boycotters really can’t complain. After all, the inevitable outcomes of the efforts of both the boycott brigade and of the Israeli MKs supporting the new bill are the same: severing political and commercial ties, politicising academia, science, sports and the arts, and aligning individuals with the actions of their states. Isn’t this precisely what boycotters have demanded all along?

The ugly side of this law – preventing cooperation and exchange between different peoples – is also the ugly end-product of international boycott campaign against Israel. And just as boycotters expect Israelis to take responsibility for the politics of their government – campaigning for the banishment of Israeli artists, academics, sportsmen and others from international events – so MKs are now demanding that all Israelis decide whether to be with their state or against it. If they choose the latter, they will be punished.

You could say that this stern Israeli reaction is a sign of success for the ‘Boycott Israel’ campaigns, as it exposes a strong sense of nervousness and defensiveness amongst Israeli political leaders faced with growing political pressures and global unpopularity. But Western boycotters shouldn’t flatter themselves. Because while many Israelis are certainly dismayed that they are being vilified around the world and cut off from academic and cultural events, the Israeli government is not overly concerned about this aspect of boycott campaigns. MKs are probably not too bothered about missing out on gigs by artists like the Pixies and Gorillaz Sound System, who recently cancelled performances in Tel Aviv.

However, the government is concerned about the effect on the Israeli economy and, as the Guardian reported this week, Israeli businesses are feeling the pinch as a result of boycotts. Recently, factories based in West Bank settlements, some of which sell about 30 per cent of their output to the Palestinian market, have been forced to cut back production or even to close down as a result of boycotts. Some factories are reportedly considering moving out of the settlements.

Yet while pro-Palestinian campaigners urge consumers to avoid Jaffa oranges and other Israeli products, and while the EU has drafted labelling guidelines for supermarkets so that European consumers can distinguish between Palestinian, Israeli and settlement produce, it is not such efforts that are putting pressure on settlement businesses. Instead, it is the Palestinian boycott movement that’s having some impact. After all, as Jnews recently reported, the anti-boycott bill was proposed after the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank decided to cut all business ties with the Israeli settlements and to boycott their produce.

Yet the MKs’ proposed boycott bill is not simply an attempt to salvage the Israeli economy. Along with two other recent proposed bills, it also seeks to regulate activists working in Israel or campaigning against Israeli policy. The NGO Transparency Bill, tabled in February, seeks to control foreign funding of non-governmental organisations working in Israel and to define them as political rather than charitable. The Universal Jurisdiction Bill, tabled in April, forbids the registration of charities involved in overseas lawsuits against Israeli officials for breaches of international humanitarian law.

Miri Weingarten, director of Jnews, is right to say that, in a democracy, ‘activists must be allowed to voice criticism and engage in protest, however unpopular’. The reality, though, is that members of the ‘NGO community’ themselves operate in highly undemocratic ways, tying conditions to the aid and assistance they supply and demanding the right to operate wherever and however they want – even if it’s against the will of a democratically elected government.

Israel’s insistence that NGOs are political organisations, its demand that the government should have the right to scrutinise NGOs, and its refusal to submit its officials to international courts fly in the face of the dominant view that NGOs are inherently good, charitable organisations and that international law is beyond criticism. It is Israel’s refusal to follow this political script that really irritates Western liberals, who are outraged when states ignore demands from the ‘international community’.

No doubt, these three bills are pretty radical attempts to reassert Israel’s right to exist however it wants. Yet it is not the government’s refusal to comply with international law and etiquette that should be regretted here. Rather, what’s truly unfortunate is the fact that the anti-boycott bill takes international boycott campaigns to their logical conclusion. In outsmarting the boycotters, the Israeli government is only helping to sever international exchanges, free expression and freedom of association for Israelis and for Palestinians.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild explained why she thought Gil Scott-Heron should play in Tel Aviv and why the University and College Union was wrong to boycott Israeli academics. Tim Black argued that sanctions and boycotts did not liberate South Africa from apartheid. Brendan O’Neill described the Gaza flotilla as a moral armada and explained what Israel-bashers have learned from George W Bush. Nathalie Rothschild interviewed an Israeli student about to embark on a counter-flotilla to Turkey. Or read more at spiked issue Israel and Palestine.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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