Boycott Law Boycotts Freedom of Speech

A prohibition against a call for a boycott bans a legitimate means of protest, so it is unacceptable.

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The boycott law, whose constitutionality the High Court of Justice will consider Sunday morning, is a legacy of the previous Knesset.

According to the law, anyone who calls for a boycott of Israel, with a reasonable likelihood of success, is committing a civil offense and can be forced to pay compensation independent of any damage incurred. A “boycott of the State of Israel” is defined as refraining from economic, cultural or academic ties with a person or entity only because of an association with Israel, its institutions or land under its control.

Thus a call to boycott products from the settlements or the theater in Ariel could fall under that category. The law also lets the finance minister ban someone calling for a boycott from taking part in a state tender, among other economic rights.

Consumer boycotts have a long tradition, including the boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, which protested the separation of blacks and whites, the boycott against South Africa during apartheid, and the cottage cheese boycott in Israel. In all these cases the boycott was a tool of political protest. But a prohibition against a call for a boycott bans a legitimate means of protest, so it is unacceptable.

Changes in the law have only increased the law’s violation of freedom of speech. As opposed to a criminal matter in which the attorney general can decide whether to press charges, the law lets anyone sue anyone who calls for a boycott, with the plaintiff receiving compensation without having to prove damage incurred.

Although no one has yet been sued as a result of this law, its very existence has a deterrent effect that impairs freedom of expression, thought and conscience. Moreover, because it only prohibits a boycott in a specific political context, it undermines equality.

Beyond the question of the law’s constitutionality, the legislature should realize that the solution to criticism of Israel and boycott calls is not silencing the criticism. It’s to seriously address the reason for that criticism.

Israeli protesters. They might want to be more careful. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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