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Boaz Yakin

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Who's to Blame for the Israeli "Boycott Law"?

Posted: 07/20/11 11:57 AM ET

I've got a habit that is shared by a great many Jews both in Israel and abroad: when a fellow tribesman invents something of great value, creates a groundbreaking work of art, or, far more infrequently, triumphs improbably in some international sporting event, we are inordinately proud. Conversely, when a Jew does something particularly infamous and vile, we are incredulous and disheartened. I still remember the dismay that gripped my parents and their friends in that long, hot New York summer when we learned that the madman responsible for the city's shocking rash of serial murders was named David Berkowitz -- and then what a lifting of spirits there was upon learning that he had been adopted!

"Of course!" I heard repeated countless times in countless Upper West Side apartments -- "He couldn't have been born Jewish."

So how to explain the behavior of the forty-seven members of the Israeli parliament who just voted to pass the "Boycott Law"-- a virulently anti-democratic, intellectually and spiritually corrupt legislation directed against its own citizens' freedom? I'd like to believe they were all adopted -- but somehow, alas, I suspect it not to be the case. Jews, of course, are capable of being as myopic and self-destructive as any of the multitude of enemies past and present we conjure up in every prayer session, on every holiday, at every heated political discussion.

In passing this law, with its intentional vagueness, the government has declared war not only on its own citizens' freedom of speech and expression, but on language itself, in a manner that matches the satirical imaginations of Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller and George Orwell. The government has decided that should an individual or organization call for or support a boycott of the State of Israel, or more to the point, any part of the State of Israel that the current Israeli government has decided constitutes a part of the State of Israel, it can be punishable by fines, provoke legal action and result in, well, a boycott of that individual or organization by the State of Israel. The aggrieved party or parties don't even have to prove damages -- they just have to go to court and complain to whomever might be presiding over such a case at such a time, and, I suppose, depending on the political sensitivities of whomever it is presiding over such a case at such a time, a number will be conjured and charged. Which I believe makes this the first law I've heard of in this ostensible democracy that potentially makes it a punishable offense for itself to be publicly disagreed with.

I mean, for instance, I can publicly disagree with a law that makes it a crime to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, or, even more dangerously, to call for violence toward an individual or group. In disagreeing with such a law, I am not shouting in a theater, or calling for violence toward anyone, and there are no legal repercussions. Even if I disagree with such laws not on the grounds of a belief in freedom of speech but because I believe one should be free to shout in a theater or call for violence to be done, I am still not in violation of the law so long as I am not calling for such action -- only disagreeing with the criminalizing of it. The "Boycott Law," on the other hand, takes things to a whole new level.

Let's say an influential individual -- a businessman, an artist, a politician -- publicly disagrees with the law because, in fact, ideologically he is favor of some particular boycott or another. Bang! An aggrieved party, in tandem with the government itself, can step forward and claim that by publicly stating his opposition to the law this individual is, in effect, promoting a boycott against the aggrieved party. So let's change this influential individual's motivation for a moment -- let's say he is against the law not because of a support for any particular boycott, but because he believes the law to be undemocratic. Bang! An aggrieved party, in tandem with the government, can still come forward and say -- "Who cares what his reasons are for opposing the law? He's a prominent figure, and by openly opposing this law he is influencing those who might be outraged by such a law to actually call for a boycott!"

And this doesn't even begin to describe the impact of this legislation on the rights of expression of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens either directly employed by the government or whose livelihoods are tangentially connected to it. Freedom of speech is a memory. Israel is well on its way down the slippery slope into a totalitarian nightmare.

When Hitler did it, we could blame the Germans. When Mao did it, we could blame the Chinese. When the Kremlin did it, we could blame the Russians. When McCarthy did it, we could blame the Irish. But this time -- barring the unlikely event that the forty-seven members of the Knesset who voted for this law were all adopted -- we can only blame ourselves.