State Defends Anti-boycott Law: Freedom of Expression in Israel Isn't Like U.S.

Law making anyone calling for boycott on Israel liable for damages comes under judges' scrutiny.

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A nine-judge panel of the High Court of Justice on Sunday mulled striking three words (in Hebrew) from the law that allows any party to sue any other party calling for a boycott of Israel.

In hearing the petition against the so-called “Boycott Law,” the court focused on the phrase at the end of the law, which specifies that a lawsuit may be filed against anyone who calls for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against the State of Israel or “area under its control,” the last part referring to the territories over the Green Line.

The controversial law was approved in July 2011, against the advice of the Knesset’s legal adviser.

A slew of human rights and minority rights organizations, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adallah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed the petition.

Dan Yakir of ACRI stressed that it is not enough to delete the law’s final phrase because the entire law is unconstitutional. “Is the phenomenon of boycott calls so significant in the country that we need this kind of law?” he asked.

Assistant legal advisor for litigation at the Knesset, Dr. Gur Bligh,, defended the law in court, even though his boss, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, opposed it while it was being legislated and during hearings of the Knesset constitution committee. State attorney general Yehuda Weinstein ultimately approved the law.

“There’s no doubt the law harms freedom of expression,” said Bligh, adding “we emphasize that freedom of expression in Israel is not absolute. Calling for a boycott is not an acceptable expression.”

Yochi Gensin, a representative of the state attorney’s office at the hearing, concurred: “Freedom of expression in Israel is not like in the United States. A clause like incitement to racism, or calling on a boycott for nationalist reasons would be ruled out in American law.”

The judges tried to focus on whether the law condemning boycott calls against Israel is appropriate, as opposed to the question of the settlements. If it was 1950 and the words “area under its control” were not in the law, would it then be acceptable to the petitioners, asked Court President Asher Grunis.

Justice Elyakim Rubenstein asked whether the petitioners would call for a boycott of Arab goods.

The petitioners responded that there should be no infringement to freedom of political expression, and expressions of political protests should not be prevented.

The justices hinted that in considering the petition, they are being dragged into a political debate which may be outside the court’s scope.

Hassan Jabareen, founder and general director of Adalah, responded, “If the court approves the law, tomorrow many lawsuits will be filed, and then the court will be political because the law puts us in this position.”

The High Court of Justice.Credit: Michal Fattal

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