Israeli officials defend anti-boycott law: "Freedom of expression in Israel is not absolute"

Published February 17th, 2014 - 10:30 GMT

Israeli officials have defended the country’s controversial anti-boycott law on Sunday, saying that Israel is not like the United States when it comes to freedom of expression.

A nine-judge panel of the Israeli High Court of Justice met on Sunday to discuss the law that allows any party to sue another party calling for an Israeli boycott. Sunday’s meeting was brought about after a petition by civil rights groups asked the High Court to overturn the law. Under the 2011 legislation, citizens are banned from calling for a boycott of Israel.

In Sunday’s hearing of the petition against the “Boycott Law”, the court reportedly focused on the phrase at the end of the law, which specifies that a lawsuit may be filed against anyone who calls for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against the State of Israel or “area under its control,” the last part referring to the territories over the Green Line, Haaretz reported.

The law does not making boycotting calls a criminal offense, but a civil issue that can provoke lawsuits and demands for compensation, the Times of Israel reported, adding that as of yet, the law has not been tested in court because no lawsuits have yet been filed. However, this is partly due to the court freezing implementation of the law, due to the flood of appeals against it.

Human rights and minority rights organizations have repeatedly slammed the law, saying that it infringes on freedom of expression. Meanwhile, the law’s supporters have argued that it “prohibits discrimination based on geography”, the Times of Israel reported.

Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel told Haaretz that deleting the law’s final phrasing is not sufficient as the law in its entirety is unconstitutional. “Is the phenomenon of boycott calls so significant in the country that we need this kind of law?” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gur Bligh, the Knesset’s assistant legal advisor for litigation defended the law in court.

“There’s no doubt the law harms freedom of expression,” said Bligh, before noting that this freedom isn’t so free: “We emphasize that freedom of expression in Israel is not absolute. Calling for a boycott is not an acceptable expression,” Haaretz reported.

Yochi Gensin, a representative of the state attorney’s office at Sunday’s hearing, concurred: “Freedom of expression in Israel is not like in the United States. A clause like incitement to racism, or calling on a boycott for nationalist reasons would be ruled out in American law,” he said, according to Haaretz.

The ruling of the panel’s discussion is expected to be delivered in the coming months.

Civil society groups have argued that even though the law has not yet been put into practice and it is difficult to implement, its very existence has a “chilling effect” and prompts self-censorship and the end to legitimate and necessary political debates about Israeli policy. They emphasise that it is not an attack on Israel itself, according to +972 magazine. 

Israel’s “Boycott Law” has garnered media attention in recent months due to the growing popularity of the movement calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until “it complies with international law and Palestinian rights”. The BDS movement was also brought up in talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau that if the peace talks fail, Israel may be boycotted by a growing number of countries in the international community.

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