In response to the growing Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the Israeli parliament passed an anti-boycott law on 11 July. The law is heavily criticized; for example, Amnesty International denounced the anti-boycott law because it “will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Israel.”
Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, Ahmad Tibi, criticized the law as “a strike against free speech.” in an article. He pledged his support to the BDS movement:
“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.”
A few days later, a remarkable warning was published by the Reut Institute, which characterizes itself as “a non-partisan Zionist organization” in a promotional video. Reut mentions in the video its support for strategic decision making processes of the State of Israel which includes advising the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Defense, the Israeli army and the National Security Council..
Reut’s CEO, Roy Keidar and head of Reut’s National Security Team, Eran Shayson, warned on 2 August, that “the greater damage of the boycott law is the controversy forming around it.” They write:
“Indeed, the urgent sense that action must be taken against the de-legitimization phenomenon is both understandable and justified. However, assumptions that the boycott law and other similar laws provide the answer to this challenge, are wrong and may well backfire.”
In February 2010, Reut qualified the actions of the BDS movement as delegitimization of Israel in a report on the urgency to respond to the growing international criticism of Israel’s violations of international law and disrespect of the rights of the Palestinian people. Reut referred in the report to critical voices as “delegitimizers”.
“The effectiveness of Israel’s delegitimizers, who represent a relatively marginal political and societal force in Europe and North America, stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics. They do so by branding Israel as a pariah and ‘apartheid’ state; rallying coalitions around ‘outstanding issues’ such as the ‘Gaza blockade’; making pro-Palestinian activity trendy; and promoting grassroots activities such as boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) as a way to ‘correct Israel’s ways.’”
In addition, Reut wrote:
“The Delegitimization Network aims to supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle by turning Israel into a pariah state and by challenging the moral legitimacy of its authorities and existence.”
Comparison with South Africa
When I interviewed Professor John Dugard, former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in October 2010, I asked him to react to accusations that the BDS movement delegitimizes Israel. He said:
“The BDS actions are delegitimizing Israel. There is no question about that. Obviously Israel is unwilling to accept that, similar to apartheid South Africa, which did want to suppress international sanctions. BDS was at that time effective, largely as a result of international advocacy for [boycott, divestment and] sanctions. It delegitimized the state and ultimately led to change in South Africa.
The comparison between Israel and South Africa is important. The situation is very similar at present. The international community is increasingly critical of Israel, advocating for international [boycott, divestment and] sanctions. It is not surprising that Israel is taking steps to prevent them in the same way the South African government did.”
In February 2010, Reut’s policy advice to Israel was to effectively face the “Delegitimization Network” by embracing a network-based logic and response by “Focusing on the hubs of delegitimization - such as London, Paris, Toronto, Madrid, and the Bay Area - and on undermining its catalysts.” Reut called on the Israeli government to direct substantial resources towards this end.
Attacking the messenger
Reut’s advice to “undermine the catalysts” of the BDS movement is a perfect example of attacking the messenger. A few months after Reut’s advice, The Electronic Intifada and its Dutch donor were fiercely attacked by the NGO Monitor. Ali Abunimah analyzed the reasons behind the attack in his article “Why NGO Monitor is attacking The Electronic Intifada”.
“NGO Monitor’s attack on The Electronic Intifada is part of a well-financed, Israeli-government endorsed effort to silence reporting about and criticism of Israel by attacking so-called “delegitimizers” — those who speak about well-documented human rights abuses, support boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), or promote full equality for Palestinians. Last February, The Electronic Intifada reported that a leading Israeli think-tank had recommended a campaign of “sabotage” against Israel’s critics as a matter of state policy.”
In its criticism of the boycott law, Reut writes that the law applies to Israel while the “delegitimization campaign is global, primarily operating beyond Israel’s borders.” Therefore the law cannot stop the global BDS movement. In addition, Reut identifies the controversy forming around the boycott law as a danger, creating divisions in “the Israeli camp” at a time where unity is needed.
Indeed, the Israeli boycott law is an attack on freedom of expression, and as such another example of Israel’s disrespect for basic human rights. It would have been very disturbing if this law was docilely accepted.