The passage by Israel’s Knesset yesterday of a bill that seeks redress against those who call for boycotts of the country or, institutions or regions under Israeli control is being blasted throughout the world as an assault on civil rights. Though the legislation does not, strictly speaking, “ban” advocacy for boycotts, it does have the potential to infringe upon freedom of speech. As such, it is a mistake, and yet another in a long history of unforced errors made by the Jewish state in the battle for international public opinion.

However, there is more to this issue than the mere assertion that Israel’s current parliamentary majority is seeking to infringe upon the civil liberties of its citizens. A proper understanding of the issue requires us to see that those seeking to implement boycotts are not merely expressing criticism of government policies but are, in fact, waging economic warfare on Israel. Moreover, such boycotts are not merely symbolic efforts to chide the Jewish state on a particular issue but part of an insidious international conspiracy to strangle a nation. If the majority of Israelis, and it would appear a majority of the country as well as the Knesset backs this measure, it is because they rightly see advocacy of boycotts as racist attacks on their very existence.

The bill will allow citizens to sue individuals and groups that call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts. It also prevents the government from doing business with companies that initiate or comply with such boycotts. That will act as a restraint on the assertion of such views and would be considered blatantly unconstitutional in an American civil liberties context. The Israeli Supreme Court may find a way to invalidate it, but let’s remember the context. Unlike the United States, Israel remains a country still living in a state of war with some of its neighbors. Israel’s foes are not, as some in this country falsely assert, merely objecting to its possession of the West Bank and the city of Jerusalem but its very existence. It shouldn’t be too hard to understand why so many of its citizens view advocacy for isolating their nation in this manner to be beyond the pale.

There are, it must be admitted, better ways to fight the boycott than bans on its advocacy, irritating as such speech may be. It would be far better were the bill confined to penalties against those who actively conspire to create or comply with efforts to isolate the country. In a democracy, even a democracy at war, as Israel must be considered to be, mere speech ought not to be considered illegal so long as it does not directly lead to violence.

There will be those who will argue that boycotts of West Bank settlements and institutions located there are defensible. It is true Israelis are divided about the wisdom of the settlement enterprise and some wrongly assert that such communities are illegal. But the idea that the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live on the “wrong” side of the 1967 lines deserve to be singled out for boycotts or that violence against them can be rationalized is hardly an expression of civil debate.

The problem with the boycott bill is it makes those who support the vicious war to extinguish the Jewish state look like free speech martyrs. That’s a mistake. But it is not as great a mistake as a willingness on the part of some Americans to treat support for efforts to isolate, boycott or disinvest from Israel as something about which we can agree to disagree.