The big BDS news story of the week has been Israel’s passing of anti-boycott legislation which provides boycotted individuals and groups the right to sue boycotters in civil court. The law also prevents state funds from going to organizations advocating boycott or divestment from the Jewish state.
Despite the civil (i.e., non-criminal) legal nature of this legislation, passage of the bill has triggered wide (and loud) commentary from both Israel’s detractors and supporters.
The storyline told by those who embrace BDS is pretty straightforward: (1) this legislation demonstrates the growing success and effectiveness of BDS (without examples of said success, for the simple reason that they have none) and (2) passage of the law demonstrates that Israel is descending into totalitarianism (or fascism, take your pick).
The response to the Knesset vote from Israel’s friends has actually not been a mirror image of the BDSers simple-minded storyline, especially since while some anti-boycott activists support the measure, many do not.
Supporters of the new law highlight that it only enables individual civil action and thus “criminalizes” nothing. They also point out that Israel is one of the few countries in the world that, until this week, did not have anti-boycott legislation on the books (including US law which actually criminalizes US compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel). So once again, they claim, Israel is condemned internationally for doing what other countries do routinely without a peep of concern.
Friends of Israel uncomfortable with the new law point out that it is likely to do more harm than good vis-à-vis Israel’s image abroad. And given that it will surely be challenged (and may be overturned) in court, they feel that any success the law might have in creating consequences for BDS advocates is not worth the potential downside.
The boycotter’s first talking point (that BDS must be successful – otherwise why pass legislation against it?) provides another perspective on the subject. As I’ve noted before in the context of the organized Jewish community’s near universal condemnation of BDS, there are a number of reasons why Jews react so strongly to this issue, despite boycott and divestment’s ten-year losing streak. These include: (1) the visceral reaction to Jews being the target of boycotts (again); (2) the desire to not get caught flat-footed, like we did when divestment first appeared in the early 2000s; and (3) because BDS has historically been easy to defeat, even the most conflict-averse Jewish groups are trying to get a piece of the anti-BDS action.
In the case of an activist government like Israel’s (i.e., a polity in which every problem is seen as potentially having a government-based solution), it’s only natural that politicians hostile to efforts to boycott their state will want “do something” (i.e., take legislative action). But if you look specifically at which individuals and political parties voted yes, no or absented themselves (and thus abstained) from the anti-boycott vote, you also see a disturbing repeat of a phenomenon that afflicts Israeli politics as much if not more than other democracies: policy debates serving as stand-ins for domestic, inter-party (and intra-party) fights.
Grandstanding in order to put your political rivals in an uncomfortable position is nothing new. But Israel’s raucous political culture renders it particularly vulnerable to short-term local political interests taking precedent over long-term geo-political consequence. This dynamic afflicted nearly every decision related to the Oslo process, for example, and seeing how well that turned out many people (including many of Israel’s greatest friends) are wary of efforts to invoke the “invisible foot” of government, especially when it might not be necessary.
Actually, the most interesting commentary I’ve read on this whole debate was this piece by Nathalie Rothschild, a harsh critic of the new anti-boycott law. After highlighting the many flaws she sees with the legislation, she observes an irony that, at the end of the day, this bill simply takes BDS to its logical conclusion. After all, BDSers have been advocating for the sacred “S” of Sanctions for years. Pity they are too obtuse to realize that they have finally achieved their goal, even if they ended up the target of the very government-based punishment they’ve been championing for the last decade.