U.S. Lauds Freedom of Expression in Response to Israeli Plan to Track pro-BDS Citizens

While America strongly opposes boycotts of Israel, voicing differing political views still requisite, State Department spokesman says.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner. JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed qualified reservations regarding an Israeli minister's plan to set up a database of citizens involved in promoting and supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel or the settlements.

While the U.S. strongly opposes boycotts of Israel, it also values freedom of expression, "even in cases where we do not necessarily agree with the political views espoused," Toner said at a Tuesday press briefing after being asked about Haaretz's report on Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan's plans.

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.

Toner used an almost similar phrasing when he was asked earlier this month about a bill passed by the Knesset that would bar foreign citizens who support boycotts of Israel and the settlements from entering Israel.

When asked about that legislation in a briefing on March 8, Toner replied: "Our strong opposition to boycotts and sanctions on the state of Israel remains firmly in place and is well-known, but as a general principle, we value freedom of expression, even in cases where we don’t agree with the political views espoused. That said, as you’ve noted, that’s Israel’s sovereign decision to make."