Israeli Ministry Trying to Compile Database of Citizens Who Support BDS

Senior officials say attorney general vehemently opposes Minister Gilad Erdan's bid, arguing his ministry has no legal authority to collect information on Israelis.

A tourist photographs a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on, calling to boycott Israeli products coming from Jewish settlements, June 5, 2015.
A tourist photographs a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on, calling to boycott Israeli products coming from Jewish settlements, June 5, 2015. Thomas Coex/AFP

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan wants to set up a database of Israeli citizens who are involved in promoting and supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel or the settlements.

Senior Israeli officials noted that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is vehemently opposed to Erdan’s proposal, arguing that the Strategic Affairs Ministry has no legal authority to collect information on Israeli citizens.

Three Israeli officials familiar with the issue said that Erdan, who in his capacity as strategic affairs minister is responsible for coordinating Israel’s response to the BDS movement, has been trying to advance his proposal for several months. Erdan has already set up an intelligence unit to collect information on foreign BDS activists, but also wants to collect information on Israelis involved, and has discussed the matter with officials in other ministries, most prominently the Justice Ministry.

The senior officials said that Erdan and his people made it clear that the information would be assembled primarily from open sources — the media, the internet and social networks like Twitter and Facebook. But a few weeks ago Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht distributed a legal opinion that Erdan’s ministry had no authority to collect such information on citizens, and stressed that this was forbidden even if the information was solely from open sources.

The database proposal also came up during a security cabinet meeting last week that dealt with the government battle against the BDS movement. A senior official who is familiar with what was discussed noted that Erdan said there was a need for such a database since many Israeli citizens are involved in encouraging boycotts against Israel and cooperate with those foreign BDS activists against whom his ministry acts.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (L) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 13, 2017.
Amit Sha'abi

A senior official who attended the security cabinet meeting recalled that Erdan said that the intention was not to gather information on masses of people, but solely on “significant” BDS activists, which he said numbered a few dozen people. But Mendelblit, a senior official said, told the ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the only body with the authority to collect this type of information on Israelis is the Shin Bet security service, and that “setting up such a database by collecting material on Israeli citizens would undermine their right to privacy.”

“Some of the ministers in attendance expressed surprise at the attorney general’s opposition and didn’t understand what the problem was with collecting information that was already public,” the official said.

Neither Erdan nor the Strategic Affairs Ministry would respond for this report.

Erdan’s initiative is the latest in a series of moves by his ministry against BDS activists. In August of last year, Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Dery set up a joint team to prevent foreign BDS activists from entering Israel and to expel foreign BDS activists in Israel. Erdan said then that one of the team’s objectives was to collect intelligence to facilitate the identification of BDS activists from around the world and to collect evidence and build legal cases that would allow for their expulsion.

In December Erdan suggested to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon that he set up a committee to draw up a blacklist of companies, organizations, and even individuals that consistently and methodically call for boycotts against Israel or the West Bank settlements. Erdan proposed that sanctions be imposed on those firms and agencies on the blacklist, such as being banned from bidding for government contracts.

Erdan and his office, along with the Interior Ministry, were involved in passing the new law earlier this month that bans people who support a boycott of Israel or the settlements from entering the country.

Lawmaker Michal Rozin (Meretz) responded to this report, calling Erdan's actions to collect information on Israeli citizens "McCarthyist, immoral and illegal."

"Erdan smells elections in the air and cracks open with new initiatives of hounding citizens," she said. "The collection of information does not stand in line with the values of democracy and the law and it's good that the attorney general strongly opposes it. Erdan's term appears to be particularly extreme and populist; from incitement and falsehoods of arson and terror to political persecution against political expression that does not align with the settler right."

Israeli lawmaker Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) wondered, "Did Gilad Erdan hesitate for a moment before he decided to turn his ministry in to a tool to hound citizens? We're tired of warning and comparing ourselves to dictatorships but it appears we have no choice when we're witnesses to a long string of steps meant to kill freedom of thought and the right to criticize and to political choice. Everything the government does is part of the same pincer movement that decides for the citizen what he should think and what political view to maintain."