I was struck by a recent op-ed in the New York Times written by a member of the Israeli Knesset. In his July 29 opinion piece, Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli lawmaker of Arab descent, lamented the loss of free speech in Israel. At issue is the new law which makes it illegal to support boycotts targeting Israel or any area under its control. This includes the illegal settlements in West Bank, which effectively closes the door to a two-state solution by creating a legal annexation of the territory. In addition, the law places Israel and its actions, however colonial, above the law.
The law imposes severe penalties of up to 30,000 NIS for individuals, organizations or businesses that participate in boycotts. Further, groups supporting the boycotts face denial of state funding and tax-deductible donations. And critics view the legislation as an unprecedented, perhaps even desperate, move to silence nonviolent resistance to an unjust occupation. The global movement, called BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is led by Palestinian civil society, but enjoys broad support, including from some Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace.
“Because I believe in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, equal rights for Palestinians and Jews, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees forced from their homes and lands in 1948, I support boycotting — and calling on others to boycott — all Israeli companies that help perpetuate these injustices,” Tibi wrote in the Times. “But this new legal limit on free speech could bankrupt me. Israeli officials will not throw me in jail for publicly supporting such boycotts, but settler groups can claim financial damages without even having to show any harm done,” he added. Tibi noted that one of his colleagues has already threatened to sue him under the new law.
J Street officially condemned Israel’s boycott law, calling it “a clear and unabashed violation of the fundamental democratic precept of freedom of speech.” The progressive Jewish-American lobbying organization also said the measure “is part of a disturbing anti-democratic trend that undermines its purported purpose by giving fodder to Israel’s critics and alienating many of its friends.”
Although disturbing by itself, the boycott law is one of a series of atrocious laws promulgated by Israel’s rightwing-led parliament to delegitimize Arabs. In March, the Knesset passed a Nakba law, which mandates the defunding of any institution or municipality that recognizes the founding of the state of Israel as a day of mourning. Another law, the Citizenship Loyalty Law, strips Israelis of their citizenship for acts of terror, including treason, espionage or aiding the enemy in wartime. “The real plan behind the bill is to create an air of fear and threat among the Arab population, as other bills sponsored by the same Knesset faction do,” said MK Nitzan Horowitz, who opposed the bill, along with the Israel Security Agency, Shin Beit. Horowitz found it hard to imagine the law being applied against Jewish terrorists.
And a third law passed earlier this year, blatantly racist and segregationist, allows communities of fewer than 400 families to appoint ”admission committees” to reject candidates due to “lack of suitability to sociocultural makeup” of the village. In other words, no Arabs allowed, with a wink and a nod.
All of this leaves progressives with the sense that, according to a commentator in one of Israel’s major dailies, “Israel has a government not even a Jewish mother could love and that the country’s democratic values are gradually being eroded from within.”
A promulgation of such harsh and degrading legislation begs for comparisons to the United States, where an extreme, coldblooded political force has taken over the federal legislature and state houses across the nation. The Congress and the Knesset are now dominated by a small group of hard-right, doctrinaire extremists, who now possess far more power than their numbers merit.
The former is the Tea Party, which has hijacked the Republican Party and promoted laws out of callousness, ignorance, hatred and a separation from reality. Their primary political tools include extortion and hostage-taking, the hostage being the U.S. economy and American poor and working people. Meanwhile, their key adversary in the White House— a black man they cannot stand and hope to destroy—clings to the belief that compromise involves negotiations over how far the knife of budgetary austerity shall be inserted into our collective back.
And the latter are the Israeli settlers who would maintain the status quo of second- and third-class citizenship for Israeli Arabs, and more importantly an apartheid Bantustan system for the occupied Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In May, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, Bibi and his Tea Party congressional sponsors thumbed their noses at the president in absentia. When it comes to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people, Netanyahu will find no greater friend of the status quo than the GOP. This applies particularly to those Christian evangelicals who believe that Israel plays a fundamental role in the Rapture— the second coming of Christ, in which those who do not accept Jesus (including Jews) will perish, in their twisted view. Talk about a marriage of convenience! With backhanded friends like that, who needs enemies?
Meanwhile, as Israel’s reactionaries criminalize boycotts and engage in a witch hunt of human rights groups, they seek to quash a tradition of free speech exercised by Martin Luther King in Montgomery, and the protest movement against apartheid South Africa. And like South Africa’s then-ruling National Party, the Likud Party’s extremist coalition government thinks it has all the time in the world, and international opinion and human rights standards be damned. “An unjust law,” as Dr. King once wrote, “is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” Well, Netanyahu’s unjust laws echo back to the desperate attempts by the apartheid government to criminalize protest and dissent, labeling the African National Congress and others as communists and terrorists and forcing them to go underground.
Just as the South African regime perceived itself as the frontlines against the chaos of black African rule, so too has the Israeli government generously depicted itself as a beacon of democracy in the Mideast, where their Arabs receive far better treatment than they would in any Mideast dictatorial regime. Notice that no Arabs are standing up to cosign on that assertion, as cries for democracy throughout the Arab world, now on Israel’s doorstep, have created an inconvenience for the Likud government. While Palestinian civil society applies pressure through nonviolent civil disobedience, it provides an opportunity for peace and self-determination.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to negotiate the borders of a Palestinian state based on the internationally-recognized 1967 ceasefire borders—exactly what Obama had suggested. If true, one can only imagine what Bibi’s Tea Party allies—and those GOP presidential candidates— will think of him now.