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Absurd but True: Jews Who Don't Support BDS Must Stand Behind Those Who Do

If we care about our democracy, those of us who disapprove of what the boycotters have to say must now be prepared to defend their right to say it.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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A pro-Palestinian activist spray-paints a banner in front of security officers during Israeli Apartheid Week at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 7, 2017.
A pro-Palestinian activist spray-paints a banner in front of security officers during Israeli Apartheid Week at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 7, 2017. Credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer

“I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

The powerful quote, usually attributed to Voltaire but actually conceived by his biographer, Evelyn Hall, sums up his approach to free speech. The statement is a cornerstone of free and open democratic societies. Growing up in the United States, I learned in school that the ability to freely speak one’s mind without fear, even if one is highly critical of one’s government, military or other authorities, was a cornerstone of democracy. As a young American Jew, I was taught that free speech and a culture of discussion and dissent was one of the important core values shared by the United States and Israel, the vaunted “only democracy in the Middle East.”

During my decades in Israel, I’ve seen that principle hold up under a tremendous amount of strain, surviving painful and volatile arguments regarding the limits of free speech and where it crossed the line into incitement to violence, most memorably in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir. When free expression leads to deadly violence, limiting speech is something that even the freest societies must consider.

At the moment, it’s not incitement to terrorism, murder or any other form of violence that the current government views as dangerous and threatening enough to harness the law to limit the free expression of opinions. That danger instead takes the form of political speech advocating the tactic of boycott, divestment and sanctions as a tool of political action.

First, in 2011, Israel passed an anti-boycott law which allowed a person or group calling for any boycott of an Israeli instituation, including the settlements, to be sued by the boycott’s targets without having to prove that they sustained actual damage as a result. Now in its wake comes the travel ban, which says entry visas or residency rights may be denied to foreign nationals who call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of either Israel or the settlements.

It hasn’t taken long to feel the impact of the legislation on the ground. In the past week, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority and the Strategic Affairs Ministry prevented Hugh Lanning, the chairman of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, from entering Israel due to his boycott activities. A day later, it was revealed that police had detained prominent left-wing activist Jeff Halper last Wednesday at the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement for suspected incitement, saying they acted on a complaint he had “materials related to BDS” in his possession. Halper, who is an Israeli, has a map in his car which advocated BDS and himself is in favor of a single, binational state.

Here’s the thing: If I were to meet either Mr. Lanning or Mr. Halper, I wouldn’t have very much in common with them, besides a dislike of the occupation and the fact that it prevents Palestinians from enjoying democracy and full civil rights. We would have a lot to argue about – a two-state solution vs. a one-state solution and whether boycotts of any degree will bring the region closer to peace.

My tendency, when friends from abroad ask me about BDS, is neither to advocate for it nor to argue against it. Personally, I will tell them, I don’t boycott – as someone who lives and works in the state of Israel, whose taxes go to subsidizing the settlement enterprise, reading supermarket labels to try and refrain from buying wine or olive oil produced by a settlement feels meaningless. I tell them that I agree with BDS critics when it comes to their double standard argument – aiming boycott-level wrath at Israel while ignoring regimes who commit crimes against its citizens and neighbors is morally indefensible. I also tell them that boycotts often punish the wrong people: artists and academics who are doing what they can to change the status quo.

I don’t believe BDS has succeeded as an effective tactic for moving the dial on Israeli public opinion. Instead, it acts as a boomerang and makes Israelis feel threatened, dig in their heels in defense of their government and circle the wagons. My bottom line: I tell them to look at the facts, visit the country to assess the situation for themselves if possible – and then act as their conscience tells them.

But while I may not advocate for BDS or a settlement boycott, I don’t fear or hate those who do. What I do fear are the signs of Israel’s eroding values when it comes to free speech and expression, and what that is doing to Israel and its relationship with those abroad who care about it, while criticizing its policies – as well as critics like Halper who live here. It’s painful to watch Simone Zimmerman, a young American Jew who loves the country as harshly as she criticizes it, say in her recent video, “I was always taught to be very proud of the robust democracy in this country. And I think banning people based on their political opinions is not a sign of a very robust democracy.”

The vast majority of Israelis, like myself, may not be fans of the BDS movement. We may deeply dislike it, and even, on some level, feel fear when we listen to the rhetoric and hear the goals of many of its members. But if our government is determined to exploit these feeling to take us sliding down a slippery slope into authoritarian thought-policing, we must stand up and stand with them. If we care about our democracy, those of us who disapprove of what the boycotters have to say must now be prepared to defend their right to say it.

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