Two days ago two events took place in Israel: 1) the Israeli Knesset passed a law that provides for civil penalties for those who organize boycotts against Israel, and 2), at about the same time, Hamas resumed the firing of Qasam missiles into Israel. And guess what: all the self-described friends of peace in the Middle East — the New Israel Fund, the Americans for Peace Now, and their allies — are outraged, absolutely outraged at event number one, but considerably less so at event number two. In fact, these great friends of peace, to judge by their websites, have not at all noticed event number two. Peace, to these peaceniks, is not at all endangered by Hamas bombardments.
(It seems that Jewish organizations across the political spectrum have expressed criticism of the the anti-boycott law, but the hysteria about it is restricted to the self-styled Left. NGO Monitor has published a very good analysis of the law, including an English translation of its text.)
It may very well be, as NGO Monitor maintains, that this new law is objectionable on a number of grounds, and it also may very well be that it will be overturned by the courts. But in the meantime here are some factors that got lost in the brouhaha:
1) Israel finds itself in an existential crisis. The loftiest of advice is of questionable value when it comes from people far away, who, moreover, do not have to face the consequences of their admonitions. A beau mentir qui vient de loin.
2) Freedom of expression is a vacuous formulation if considered without context. For example, there is no jurisdiction on earth, or imaginable, without limitations to freedom. There are the obvious prohibitions about shouting “fire” in a crowded theater; about libel and slander; about false advertising; and many others. What the limits should be in a given circumstance can only be determined by a close consideration of its particulars. In the case of the anti-boycott law, it is important to recognize the evil to which this law is addressed: the agitation by a number of well financed groups, with the bulk of the money coming from abroad, to delegitemize the state of Israel. That is a problem to which the Knesset obviously had to react. Perhaps the law in this first version is overreaching or otherwise inappropriate, and it seems that amendments to it are under consideration. But to criticize the law without at all recognizing the underlying problem is mindless.
3) The right to organize boycotts, pace the opinion of the hysterics who are discussing this law from afar, is not one of those rock-bottom democratic rights like freedom of the press. It is not a tool of rational discussion but rather a tool of coercion: do as I say or I will try to take away your livelihood. In the United States there are limits to the right to organize boycotts. Unions may boycott employers with whom they have a dispute, but they cannot engage in “secondary boycotts,” i.e. boycott those who do business with these employers. And it is also illegal, in the United States, to collude in boycotts organized by foreign governments. It is similarly illegal to orchestrate boycotts against racial or religious groups where public accommodations are in play. In brief, public policy recognizes that the freedom to engage in public actions must stop where the freedom of others is encroached.
4) The left-leaning groups who are so enraged at what they think is an unjustifiable limitation of freedom here never criticized the Knesset, as far as I can remember, when it banned Kahane’s Kach party in 1988. It seems that these great defenders of absolute freedom are quite happy when it is their opponents who are banned.
In the end, many people in this world, including many diaspora Jews and not only those on the Left, are quite eager to see a mote in Israel’s eye while missing the beam elsewhere.