Israel's Boycott Law: The Quiet Sound of Going Fascist

This is the one. This is where the slope turns nowhere but down. When the Knesset passed the boycott law, it changed the history of the state of Israel.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

This is the one. Don't let what we like to call the relative calm here, fool you. When the Knesset passed the boycott law Monday night, it changed the history of the state of Israel.

In real time, a tipping point of great magnitude can sound a lot like nothing at all. But if the Boycott Law makes it past challenges filed by human rights and pro-peace organizations in Israel's High Court of Justice, then anything goes, beginning with democracy itself.

Members of the Knesset voting on a bill, July 11, 2011Credit: Michal Fattal

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak and 10 other cabinet ministers already know this. That's why they failed to show up for the vote.

They stayed away because they know that this is the stain that may prove indelible. The Boycott Law is the litmus test for Israeli democracy, the threshold test for Israeli fascism. It's a test of moderates everywhere who care about the future of this place.

This is the one. This is where the slope turns nowhere but down.

Q. What is wrong with the law?

1. The measure curbs political freedom of expression in Israel in a number of ways, setting potentially significant – and dangerous – precedents. It allows any individual to, in effect, become a private law enforcement agency, empowered to bring lawsuits against anyone or any group the plaintiff accuses of having taken part in or even simply supported any action the plaintiff construes as a boycott against Israel, against the settlements, or even any individual Israeli, for any reason.

2. The measure erases the legal differentiation between settlements and Israel proper, regarding targeted boycotts against goods from the settlements as actions harmful to the state of Israel itself.

3. The Knesset's apolitical Legal Advisor Eyal Yinon has ruled that the law's broad definition of "boycotting the state of Israel", coupled with its "civil wrongdoing" or anyone-can-sue clause, may compromise freedom of expression where it comes to public debate over the fate of the West Bank. Prior to the Monday vote, Yinon stated that the law could be brought to bear against targeted boycotts "whose goal is to influence the political debate in connection with the future of Judea and Samaria, a discussion which has been at the heart of political debate in Israel for more than 40 years now."

4. The effect of the law could be crippling to the efforts of all organizations and many individuals working for Israeli-Palestinian peace and enhanced freedoms and human rights within Israel and the territories. The rabid anti-NGO campaigns of Im Tirtzu and other groups could escalate into a full-bore "lawfare" offensive, hauling them repeatedly into court and costing them prohibitive legal fees.

Q. Who benefits from all of this?

For the hard right, this is a clear win-win. First, there is the language of the law, through which Israel effectively and without fanfare annexes the settlements, and, in so doing, acknowledges that the settlements have annexed the state of Israel.

Secondly, the more untenable the law, the more anti-democratic its spirit and the more delusional its provisions, the more it delights those within the pro-settlement power base. Furthermore, this increases the likelihood that the High Court – reviled by the far-right and radical religious - will strike it down, only adding luster to those who incite against the Court.

Q. Who is fighting the law?

The Gush Shalom organization Tuesday filed the first High Court legal challenge to the new law.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Coalition of Women for Peace, Physicians for Human Rights, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, have also announced that they will challenge the law in the High Court. Peace Now and the Solidarity (Sheikh Jarrah) movement have begun collecting thousands of personal pledges advocating boycotts against settlement.

A number of U.S. Jewish organizations have condemned the bill, notably the Anti-Defamation League, which generally refrains from criticizing Israeli government policy and actions. ADL President Abraham Foxman said the bill was a disservice to Israeli democracy. J Street and Ameinu were among other U.S. groups to denounce the law.

Q. How dare you call this a step toward fascism in Israel?

I'm pretty much no different from everybody else here - just learning by doing. Im learning about fascism one step at a time. "Now they tell me," I'm thinking to myself. Im learning that the success of the Boycott Bill is a textbook case of the quiet appeal, the brilliant disguise, the endlessly adaptable expertise in the workings of democracy , that help explain the progress of fascism in our time. So this is what I've found out so far:

At first, it doesn't feel like fascism. That's why it works.

At first, to people whose nerves are bleeding and torn and altogether shot from generations of bearing arms and bearing wars and bearing children who will face still more wars, and between them, chaos and trauma and fury and grief and going without, fascism can sound like quiet. It can sound like actual calm. It's an understandable mistake. What have these people had to compare it to?

To people who feel vilified on reflex and demonized by rote, this new direction of ours can feel like freedom. That's why it works in a place like this. While it's getting up to speed, fascism's just another word for nothing left to lose.

I have friends whose livelihood is bound up with preserving the sense that democracy in Israel is as sound as ever; that if it's under attack, it's only from enemies foreign and domestic. I feel for them now. They'll have to dismiss or minimize or ignore the Boycott Bill. They'll have to pretend. At first, they could hope that no one would notice or care. Not, as they say, bloody likely. Fascism, the human construction that it is, has its better days and worse, and Monday was the best ever.

And this was not only because the day began with Glenn Beck being hosted in the Knesset by Likud MK Danny Danon, the carefully coiffed Mad Hatter of Israeli Tea Party wannabes.

It was how the day ended that mattered.

Q. What's next in line?

A list of new bills, beginning next week, each designed to choke debate, gag protest, punish criticism, and/or cement the rule of the right. First up: The return of a bill to create McCarthyesque committees to investigate organizations the panels deem leftist. The bill was originally withdrawn for lack of votes in Knesset, but, buoyed by the success of the Boycott Law, the McCarthy Bill's sponsors now believe they can win passage.

Q. Do you see any cause for hope at all?

Paradoxically, the Boycott Law may yet prove to be a disaster for its primary sponsors, the settlement movement. First, there is the economic element. While the law appears to effectively annex the territories, erasing any legal difference between Israel proper, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it may single-handedly spur an unprecedented world protest boycott on settler-produced goods. And thanks to the sweeping language of the boycott law, the poison written in smoke and fun-house mirrors, the boycott may extend to the Golan as well, in particular, to Yarden wines.

But what may more effectively stymie the march toward fascism in Israel are the budding doubts of the supporters of laws such as these. You could hear them on Tuesday, headed by Likud Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, forced by the absence of Netanyahu and Barak to defend the law on his own.

The former Peace Now activist, sounding pained and put-upon, condemned boycotts as inherently undemocratic and illegitimate. In terms that were as worthy a description as any of the Boycott Law itself, Steinitz called boycotting "a belligerent attempt to impose one's will on a public which thinks otherwise".



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