Analysis |

Freedom of Expression at Stake in Boycott Law Deliberations

Boycott calls may annoy people. but protecting freedom of expression is particularly necessary when that expression is liable to antagonize and be unpopular.

Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross
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Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross

During the High Court of Justice hearing on the constitutionality of the Boycott Law yesterday, there were a lot of questions raised about the legitimacy of restricting freedom of expression. Among other issues, comparisons were made between calling for a boycott and discriminatory calls against specific groups, for example calling to refuse to rent apartments to Arabs.

Whatever one’s position on boycotts, it must be clear that this is a problematic comparison. Calling for a boycott is a political act, a protest against policies that the protesters believe are unacceptable. One can boycott a specific product (like cottage cheese), a country, or its representatives. But one mustn’t confuse a boycott as a protest with forbidden and arbitrary discrimination against a person. There are already relevant laws on the books forbidding discrimination in areas like employment and provision of services, and there may well be room to expand such protections. But those provide the framework for fighting discrimination, not a law that forbids calling for political boycotts, which are a legitimate and acceptable means of protest.

There is a certain irony in accusing those who choose to call a boycott to protest discriminatory policies of being racist and discriminatory. As attorney Hassan Jabareen pointed out, even those calling for boycotts don’t want to boycott individuals because of their identity; political boycotts are generally aimed at institutions.

Another issue that arose was the matter of “ripeness.” In its past ruling on the Nakba Law, which allows for government-funded organizations to be fined if they fund projects calling for Independence Day as a day of mourning, the High Court ruled that the time was not yet ripe to rule on its constitutionality since the law had not yet been implemented, and time was needed to see how things develop. A similar argument was made in this case.

But this ignores the fact that the very existence of the law deters expression by creating a chilling effect, as was noted at Sunday’s hearing. Attorney Gabi Lasky, representing the Gush Shalom organization, said the group had already been forced to stop publishing its list of settlement products with its call to boycott them, for fear they’d be sued under the law.

Boycott calls may annoy people, but it seems as if a basic principle must be reiterated: Protecting freedom of expression is particularly necessary when that expression is liable to antagonize and be unpopular. The way to confront criticism and protest is not to shoot the messenger, but to deal with the content of the criticism in a substantive manner. The High Court ought to rule that the Boycott Law is unconstitutional because it undermines freedom of expression, thought and conscience.

Full disclosure: The writer is on the board of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which is one of the petitioners.

Israeli left-wing activists demonstrated against the boycott law in July 2011, but in practice no Israeli has been sued for not buying products nade in West Bank settlements.Credit: AP

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