Sunday 17 July 2011

Boycotts and Democracy

Last week, the Knesset passed a controversial law which has reignited the ongoing debate about the nature of Israel's democracy. The new law, which enjoys the full support of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party, makes it illegal to call for boycotts on Israel. It also makes it illegal to call for boycotts on parts of Israel, such as the settlements or the West Bank.

Over the 63 years of its existence, Israel has suffered a great deal from the effects of boycotts, which have been directed against Israel by those opposed to her continued existence. The most notable and widely reported of these boycotts has been the Arab boycott. This has not only been directed against Israel herself, but also against companies that have had links with or representation in Israel. It has been interesting to note how this boycott has been applied in a highly selective manner. Companies like Coca Cola, McDonald's, Apple and Microsoft have continued to sell their products in the Arab world, while still being widely represented in Israel.

It is one thing for enemies to call for boycotts to try to damage a country's economy, in an attempt to change the politics within that country or a region. It becomes quite another thing when those who are considered closer to the country, for example citizens of the country, use these tactics. It seems as if this was the moment when the Israeli government stepped in and decided that action needed to be taken against those calling for boycotts. There are those who argue that calling for a boycott is tantamount to treason, particularly for a country like Israel which already finds itself in a precarious situation. This is what prompted the government to step in, and to pass a law that makes it illegal to call for boycotts. More than this, the government has enacted that companies or individuals making such calls will be excluded from bidding on government tenders.

The controversy during the passage of the bill resulted in the final version being somewhat diluted from the original draft of the bill. Originally, it was recommended that it be a criminal offense to call for boycotts against Israel. By the time the law passed its final hearing, it was enacted that calling for boycotts would not be a criminal offense, but would rather be a civil offense. Although one cannot be arrested and charged by the state when calling for boycotts, it does mean that anybody who is the target of such boycott can sue the accused in a court of law, while not having to prove that actual damage was caused. The fine on those found guilty of this offense has been left to the court in question to rule upon.

Any controversy that was evident in and around the corridors of the Knesset during the time that the bill was in its draft form, have erupted into much greater levels of opposition since the bill was passed. The debate and controversy has focused upon whether such a bill is undemocratic. Is it a limitation on the freedom of speech of the individual to prevent him from calling for a boycott on the country in which he lives? Some highly respected legal opinions think that this is the case. Although Israeli State Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein sees no conflict between the new law and freedom of speech, the legal adviser to the Knesset does not agree. Eyal Yanon issued an opinion which states that parts of the law "edge toward illegality and beyond". A group of 32 Israeli law professors and senior legal academics signed a petition to demonstrate their objection to the law on a legal basis. It is their view that it should be the right of all citizens to be able to say what they feel, and to take actions to support this including the call for boycotts on Israel. There is clearly more than simply a passing concern about the impact of the new law on Israeli democracy. This, in turn, causes much consternation as Israelis are extremely protective over the democratic nature of the state.

If we take this scenario into the world of business for a moment, the rules seem clearer cut. It is acceptable to cause economic damage to competitors, so long as the actions taken are legal and within the realms of fair competitive action. It is unacceptable, however, to make calls for actions against the company for which you work, which may have a significant detrimental impact on the company. This is likely to be a firing offense. The rule is, that if you cannot live with the policies followed by your employer, you need to find employment elsewhere rather than try to militate from within to cause your company damage. Do the same rules not apply to the country in which you live? Should the state not have the right to demand some level of loyalty to be shown by those who enjoy the benefits that the state offers to its citizens? Should it not be an offense to bite the hand that feeds you, and protects you from the enemies of the world?

The effectiveness of calls for boycotts over the years is unclear. There are those who claim that the massive international boycotts applied against the apartheid government in South Africa were ultimately the catalyst that gave rise to democracy in that country. Boycotts applied against other countries, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, North Korea and countless other countries over the years, seem not to have produced the desired results. Boycotts have surely caused damage to these countries, but not in sufficient amounts to bring about the changes that were desired by the boycotters. Boycotts have undoubtedly caused damage to the Israeli economy over the years. They have also served to prove correct the famous idiom based on a quotation from Plato, that "necessity is the mother of invention". As a result of boycotts applied against her, Israel has developed her own capabilities and independence in so many industries that would otherwise not have been the case. In a perverse sort of way, Israel has probably gained more from boycotts than she has lost.

I find it difficult to understand how the law passed by the Knesset impinges on the democratic rights and freedom of expression available to Israelis. This is especially true when considering the fact that there is no criminal offense committed by those who transgress the new law. For me, the true test of our democracy and rights to freedom of speech is whether we are able to hold an open debate about our democracy without fear of retribution. In that sense, the boycott law has served to strengthen my faith in our democracy rather than weaken it. The process has proved that Arab members of Knesset have the right to make their opposition clear (as long as this is done within the rules by which Knesset debates are run), and a legal adviser employed by the Knesset is also entitled to publicly voice his opposition to a law passed by the same Knesset that pays his salary and feeds his children. Most important to me is the fact that those who think that they can enjoy the benefits of citizenship of the State of Israel, and also make public calls which will damage her economic and political well-being, will be forced to take responsibility for their actions in a court of law. This is true democracy in action.

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