A pair of laws currently making their way through the United States Congress would impose criminal sanctions on Americans who support an economic boycott of Israel or its illegal West Bank settlements. The bill follows in the footsteps of, and in some was surpasses the dozens of American states that have passed their own anti-boycott laws in recent years.
The Senate bill, S. 720, known as the “Anti-Israel Boycott Act,” also goes far beyond what even the Israeli government is willing to do to counter the grassroots movement to end the occupation and achieve certain basic rights for Palestinians. Indeed, Israel has its own anti-boycott law on the books but it not criminal, and it does not directly limit the right to call for such boycotts. Even in Israel calling to boycott the country, its institutions, its citizens, and its settlements are still considered protected speech. The punishment for violating the proposed American law, on the other hand, would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and/or up to a year in prison.
“This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to U.S. Senators this week, adding that such punishments would be “a direct violation of the first amendment.” Even requesting information about companies that are boycotts would become illegal, the ACLU noted.
But the efforts to stymie boycott efforts in the United States and elsewhere — similar legislation has popped up in Europe — are far more sinister than just restricting the free speech and political expression of American and other supporters of Palestinians. Its true purpose is to block one of the few remaining legitimate, nonviolent tactics Palestinians have for achieving national self-determination and individual rights.
When the Israeli government and its supporters (the Senate bill is being promoted by AIPAC) attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian-led boycott — a political and economic pressure tactic well within the normative democratic toolbox — they are actually saying that Palestinians do not have the same political rights as others with regards to individual political expression, but more importantly, the right to national self-determination.
The latter is particularly sinister when you consider that one of the more common Israeli talking points against the BDS Movement these days is to accuse boycotters of denying the Jewish people the right to national self-determination. Denying that right to the Jewish people alone, the argument goes, means the boycott movement is anti-Semitic. Yet if denying the right to national determination to one specific group means crossing such a thick red line that it wades into anti-Semitic territory, then denying another group a set of legitimate tools for achieving that same aim should be just as unconscionable.
The Palestinian territories have been under Israeli military occupation for over 50 years now. An Israeli military commander is the acting sovereign in the West Bank. That military commander is not accountable to those over whom he rules but rather to the democratically elected government of another country, Israel. There is nothing democratic about it, and Palestinians have no legal avenue to hold their rulers (Israel) accountable or to shape the future of their lives or their country. (The Palestinian Authority has the sovereign powers of an overzealous municipality on a good day.)
So how is a people without any democratic recourse supposed to seek and achieve independence and national self-determination — or even plain-old equality and basic rights? The world long ago made clear to the Palestinians that violence is not a legitimate path for them. That leaves civil disobedience, international solidarity, and economic influence as the primary means of leverage available.
Palestinians have tried to leverage their economic power against Israel in the past. The First Intifada included mass strikes and consumer boycotts. But the Israeli economy was never dependent on Palestinian labor, and in the wake of the First Intifada, Israel sought to immunize itself from further such actions by bringing in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to replace the Palestinian laborers. As a result, the Israeli economy is relatively unsusceptible to direct Palestinian economic leverage today. (There are some more exotic possibilities, like aggressively selling off the shekels in circulation in the Palestinian territories, which could in theory flood the Israeli currency market and lead to temporary retaliatory inflation, but the impact would be limited.)
Which brings us back to international pressure — political and economic. The Senate, AIPAC, and countless others may not be comfortable with the type of leverage a consumer or corporate boycott movement could bring. And such pressure may ultimately prove to be not enough. But to weld that door shut would be to tell the Palestinians that they do not have any agency in determining their own lives and national future, which leaves the ball squarely in Israel’s court. The past 50 years have made clear that as long the stability and relative comfort of the status quo continue to outweigh the risks of change for Israel, ending the occupation will not even appear on the agenda.
Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man is the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine and a regular contributor of both reporting and analysis. Prior to joining +972 he worked as the news desk manager for JPost.com. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Protest of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3, 2015 (Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr).