Those of us who love Israel have always pointed with pride to its vibrant democratic character – “the only democracy in the Middle East,” we called it. In what other country in the Middle East is there freedom of the press, of association, of speech, and – for the most part – freedom of religion, we asked rhetorically? Without a tradition of democracy to work from, the founders and early pioneers created a political system closely modeled on the best principles of Western nations. It was a remarkable achievement, second only to the resurrection of the Hebrew language, and it worked reasonably well for 63 years – that is, until now.
The recently-passed Boycott Law, which in effect outlaws any call for boycotting products made in West Bank settlements, is a huge retreat from democratic principles. In fact, if the Israeli Supreme Court doesn’t invalidate the Law it will no longer be possible to call Israel a democracy.
This isn’t a question of Right vs. Left. It’s a matter of Right vs. Wrong. One of the most prized and sacred values of a democracy is the ability of citizens to criticize its government. Today in Israel it is possible for consumers to boycott cottage cheese and for the ultra-orthodox to boycott establishments which don’t observe kashrut, but it is not legally possible for citizens to boycott products made in the settlements as a way of criticizing 44 years of occupation, or for entertainers to refuse to perform in West Bank venues in order to bring the Occupation to a needed end.
Israel’s current government and its followers in the Knesset despise liberal values and the institutions which represent them: a free press, academia, mainstream culture, an independent judiciary, among others. The boycott law is only one of many anti-democratic pieces of legislation being debated in the Knesset. If it stands, the country we know and love will look more like totalitarian regimes than “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
We need to support those NGO’s that are fighting back by challenging the law in the Supreme Court, and demonstrating in the streets. Israel doesn’t need external enemies to delegitimize it. Unfortunately, it’s doing a fine job of delegitimizing itself.
Barbara Green is an activist and volunteer with Americans for Peace Now (APN) out of the national office in Washington, D.C. Earlier in 2011, she coordinated APN’s Study Tour to Israel.