A Strike Against Free Speech
By AHMAD TIBI
New York Times 29/7/2011
Free speech in Israel was dealt a severe blow this month when the country’s Parliament passed antiboycott legislation that targets individuals or organizations publicly calling for a boycott against Israel or any area under its control.
Because I believe in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, equal rights for Palestinians and Jews, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees forced from their homes and lands in 1948, I support boycotting — and calling on others to boycott — all Israeli companies that help perpetuate these injustices.
But this new legal limit on free speech could bankrupt me.
Israeli officials will not throw me in jail for publicly supporting such
boycotts, but settler groups can claim financial damages without even having
to show any harm done. Furthermore, organizations supporting boycotts could
be denied tax-deductible contributions and state funding. This week, I
appealed the law to the high court.
Already, a member of the Knesset, our Parliament, Alex Miller, has
threatened to sue me for my words — specifically my call, which I continue
to make today, to boycott the illegal Jewish settlement of Ariel. Such a
call would be unremarkable in a proper democracy with untrammeled free
speech. The right to criticize a population that has dispossessed
Palestinians and discriminated against us for decades should be protected
Perhaps my parliamentary immunity will protect me, but that can readily be
stripped. Moreover, parliamentary immunity will not protect Israelis who
urge fellow citizens not to buy Ahava beauty products created from natural
resources illegally extracted from the occupied shores of the Dead Sea and
manufactured in a factory in an illegal West Bank settlement, to avoid wines
from the occupied Golan Heights, or to hire construction companies other
than those that build exclusive and discriminatory housing units for
settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proudly taken ownership of the bill
for his Likud party, declaring: “Don’t be confused — I authorized the bill.
If I hadn’t authorized it, it wouldn’t have gotten here.” Given Netanyahu’s
warm reception on Capitol Hill when he visited the United States a few weeks
ago, I fear that most members of Congress will not offer a peep of protest,
even as Israel, a key American ally that bills itself as “the only democracy
in the Middle East,” strays into undemocratic and clearly bigoted lawmaking.
The Israeli Parliament’s antiboycott legislation is an unprecedented effort
to undercut nonviolent resistance to Israeli oppression. Many people believe
that making nonviolence more difficult will make violence inevitable. I do
not. Approving such irresponsible and reactionary legislation highlights
Israel’s long decades of injustice to Palestinians and hands us something of
a political victory. Through this legislation, Israel has drawn further
attention to its violent occupation of Palestinian territory and routine
violations of international law.
Colonizing settlers and their elected representatives now rule Israel’s
political landscape, and few dare to stand against them. This reticence in
the face of repeated abuses by settlers reflects poorly on Israeli society
and the U.S. government.
One of Israel’s leading newspapers, Haaretz, noted in an editorial that the
antiboycott legislation “is a politically opportunistic and antidemocratic
act, the latest in a series of outrageously discriminatory and exclusionary
laws enacted over the past year, and it accelerates the process of
transforming Israel’s legal code into a disturbingly dictatorial document.
It casts the threatening shadow of criminal offense over every boycott,
petition or even newspaper op-ed. Very soon, all political debate will be
Haaretz may well be right. I prefer to believe, however, that the overreach
of the extreme right in Israel will eventually rouse people of good will in
the United States and Europe to put greater pressure on the Israeli
government to change course. Despite the hopes of American politicians,
Israel is not going to change on its own. Only very real international
pressure will force the Israeli government to change. Until then, we can
expect more discriminatory and undemocratic legislation from this Knesset.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli, is deputy speaker of the Israeli Parliament.
Friday, July 29, 2011 at 10:52AM