While I may be accused of missing the boat due to the lateness of this post, I still think it is relevant to put this view forward. I think activists opposed to Israeli settlements and state racism should see the Boycott law, perhaps more specifically the reactions against it, as a victory – and perhaps as a sign of a turning point which could change what it is possible to say about the Israeli/Palestinian situation in North America.
Perhaps most significant written event is the New York Times editorial “Not Befitting a Democracy”, which asserts that Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been “seriously tarnished” by the passing of the boycott law, and praises the Israeli newspaper Haaretz for calling the law “politically opportunistic and antidemocratic”. This editorial does not reflect a shift in the paper’s support for Israel; the NY times remains “opposed to boycotts of Israel”, but this law changes the question – the issue is no longer “boycott or not” but whether one should have the right to boycott or not – the editor calls this “a fundamental issue of free speech.” The editorial also refers to the growing strength of the BDS movement, and explains the new law as a reaction against it; “Israel’s conservative government is determined to crush a growing push by Palestinians and their supporters for boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel” – but significantly, the motivations of the boycotters is not brought up as a way to delegitimize their right to free speech.
By changing the conversation from “boycott or not” to “the right to boycott or not the right to boycott”, the Israeli administration has severely weakened its PR position against the BDS movement. And I don’t think they can go back – to withdraw the law on principled grounds would be a sign of weakness against the growing strength of the BDS movement, but to enforce it will produce an insane situation in Israeli society as domestic activists organize to disobey the law en masse.
Unsurprisingly, the boycott law has received much stronger condemnation in Israel than in the mainstream press outside it – Alon Idan of Haaretz has called it fascism – not something along the slippery road to fascism, but fascism full stop.
I do not know if opposition to the boycott law has become a rallying cry in the massive protests which have erupted in Israel this week, but I hope this moment becomes a crystallizing event around which the left in Israel can reform, and re-orient themselves to become a genuine possible peace partner for a resolution to the conflict there.
But for the situation in North America, I think the most important thing may be the breaking of the taboo against criticizing “Israeli democracy”. It’s always been acceptable to criticize this within Israel, but much less so in America. I hope that the opposition against the boycott law can lead to more substantial criticisms of “Israeli democracy”, the racism in Israeli civil society and it’s anti-Palestinian welfare state system, as well as criticism of the occupation as a war crime, and the continued expulsion of the refugees from their villages as racist and anti-democratic. But this won’t happen on its own – it’s up to writers, journalists mostly, to make these connections while the window of permissibility remains open.