European Union Expresses Concern Over Israel's Boycott Law

EU says legislation may affect freedom of expression in Israel; mixed reaction among European Jewish organizations.

The European Union put out a carefully worded but clearly critical statement on the new Israeli boycott law on Wednesday, saying it intended to discuss this matter and raise our concerns with the Israeli authorities."

"The EU recognizes Israel's sovereignty in the legislative process.
Furthermore, the EU does not advocate boycotts," a spokesperson for foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

Ashton - Reuters, July 1, 2011

"However, as part of such fundamental values as free expression and speech that the EU cherishes and shares with Israel, we are concerned about the effect that this legislation may have on the freedom of Israeli citizens and organizations to express non-violent political opinions."

Meanwhile, the umbrella organization of French Jewish organizations in France, known as the CRIF, welcomed the controversial new Israeli boycott law Wednesday. The CRIFs director general Haim Musicant pointed out that a similar such law has long existed in France, much to the satisfaction of the French Jewish community.

Commercial boycotts of Israel have been illegal in France for many years, he explained to Haaretz. And this has been good in fighting such negative action. I believe this is a good model. I know that many other European countries are looking into adopting the French models themselves.

But, even as such official Jewish organs were applauding the Israeli measures, other community voices were speaking out against them. Yachad, a new British Jewish Israel advocacy organization inspired by the American J-Street, decried the law.

Yachad will not join those who call for a boycott of Israeli produce because we believe in debate and we are opposed to a policy of isolation. However, we fiercely and unapologetically defend the right of Israelis and Jews to express their opinion as enshrined our tradition and as stated in Israel's own Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, said Daniel Reisel, Yachads chair.

The first and most obvious problem with the boycott law is that violates the freedom of individual free speech. To seek to punish someone for their political opinions limits their freedom, creates a climate of fear and suspicion, and compromises the ability of every person to speak their mind, Yachad went on to said in a statement. Second, the law violates basic freedom of expression and debate in a democratic society....(and) finally, the anti-boycott law is likely to prove counter-productive. People who have previously resisted the idea of boycotts as political leverage may now start to consider it simply due to the infringement of their freedom of speech which the current law entails.

Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the boycott law, which was passed in the Knesset Monday night. The law, which penalizes people or organizations who call for a boycott on Israel or the settlements, provoked sharp criticism from opposition MKs and leftist organizations in Israel.

Netanyahu said the law does not taint Israeli democracy. "What stains (Israel's) image are those savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy's attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not," he said.

According to the law, a person or an organization calling for the boycott of Israel, including the settlements, can be sued by the boycott's targets without having to prove that they sustained damage. The court will then decide how much compensation is to be paid. The second part of the law says a person or a company that declare a boycott of Israel or the settlements will not be able to bid in government tenders.

On Tuesday, Israeli leftist organizations launched a legal and a public campaign against the law.