It was to be expected the Knesset’s passage on Monday of an ill-considered law allowing citizens to sue those who advocate boycotts of Israel or Israeli regions and institution would generate criticism of the Jewish state. The best that can be said of this episode is that the rebukes issued by both the United States and the European Union were fairly mild, and that appears to be as far as it will go. Even better news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who took responsibility for the legislation’s success, seems to understand that however justifiable the law may seem to most Israelis, further measures are a mistake.
Though (as I wrote on Tuesday), this legislation was a mistake, worries about the future of Israeli democracy are absurd. Israel remains a vibrant and free democracy, especially when compared to the civil liberties records of other democracies when they are at war. Anti-boycott laws are quite common around the democratic world, and though this particular legislation is wrong-headed because it allows speech rather than material acts enforcing an illegal boycott to be punished, the idea it represents an effort to stifle legitimate dissent cannot be sustained.
That said, Netanyahu’s announcement today that he would not support a bill authorizing Knesset investigations of left-wing, non-profit and non-governmental organizations in the country that often seek to besmirch Israel’s reputation was the right decision. Though the criticisms of these NGOs that are often funded from abroad are entirely justified, the notion of creating a Knesset Star Chamber to grill them is unseemly and, as Netanyahu noted, unnecessary. This statement immediately set off a ruckus between the prime minister and his Yisrael Beitenu coalition partners, but Netanyahu was correct to say so.
However foolish the passage of this law may seem to Americans, it is vital they understand why Israelis feel it is necessary. As Israel Harel wrote in today’s Haaretz, the bill may be superfluous, but the driving force behind it wasn’t right wing politics but a natural reaction on the part of most Israelis to the relentless campaign to delegitimize their country. As Harel says:
The ones spurring these legislative initiatives are the organizations that use foreign funding to besmirch the state and its military, to prosecute Israel Defense Forces officers abroad and to change the state’s Jewish-Zionist identity.
Anyone who claims Israeli democracy is being subverted by such laws needs to reckon with the fact the attacks on the country make such measures seem entirely reasonable to the majority of Israelis.