In an apparent nod to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wishes, Israel’s Knesset voted yesterday to turn down a proposal to investigate left-wing non-governmental organizations. But this decision won’t completely defuse the controversy about a previous measure passed by the body that allowed citizens to sue individuals or groups calling for boycotts of Israel or any region of the country. Netanyahu’s decision to back off on the latest of these measures proposed by his Yisrael Beitenu coalition partners shows he is sensitive to the way the issue plays abroad.
As I wrote previously, these efforts to clamp down on foreign-funded groups seeking to undermine Israel from within are counter-productive. These bills turn pro-boycott groups into martyrs rather than isolating them. But as Americans continue to huff and puff about what they wrongly term anti-democratic legislation, it needs to be reiterated–this issue looks a little different from an Israeli perspective. Moreover, those Americans who have heightened Israel’s feelings of isolation are in no position to complain about these measures.
First, it should be stipulated those who advocate boycotts of the country are not quite the peaceful protesters many Americans believe they are. Efforts to boycott Israel are nothing less than economic warfare on the Jewish state. Those who single out democratic Israel for treatment they would not think of imposing on other countries, including those with genuinely horrible human rights records, are anti-Semites–pure and simple. Israelis are also right to resent the activities of foreign-financed NGOs that operate freely inside their country while doing everything to support Palestinian groups that seek to undermine Jewish security and Zionism.
What Americans also don’t understand is that Israelis, like the citizens of many other democratic countries around the globe, don’t have the same absolutist attitude toward free speech that we have in this country. Our First Amendment protections are the glory of American democracy, and Israelis and others who tend to support government restrictions on speech would do well to follow in our path.
There is also a long tradition in Israel of attempts to restrict or minimize dissent, but contrary to the leftist critique of the Netanyahu government alleging it wants to overturn democracy, it stems from the country’s left-wing past, not the legacy of the right. Two of Israel’s most heroic leaders, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, countenanced all forms of measures that hampered dissent against their governments’ policies. Part of this stemmed from the point of view of a nation at war, in which military censorship persists to this day. But it was also about intolerance for political opponents. For example, when anti-Oslo demonstrators held peaceful though disruptive sit-ins on highways, Rabin had them charged with “sedition” rather than with merely disturbing the peace, as they would have been in the United States.
To cite this example is not to defend the anti-boycott law, but it does put it in an Israeli context in which absolute freedom of speech is not something that either the left or right has ever really supported. The popularity of these measures stems not just from resentment of anti-Zionists but of a general feeling of isolation exacerbated by President Obama’s frequent sniping and picking of fights with Israel’s government.
Those who seek to heighten feelings of abandonment on the part of the vast majority of Israelis aren’t helping the country. Groups such as Americans for Peace Now who have used this issue as a pretext to renew its vicious effort to delegitimize Jews who live in the settlements are doing nothing for the cause of Israeli democracy or peace. Though these bills are mistakes, it is Israel’s existence and not its democratic culture that is currently under attack.