Members of the Jewish community have always been ambivalent about boycotts. The odious Arab boycott of Israel, which flourished from 1948 until the mid-1990s, galled Israel’s supporters and led to congressional legislation prohibiting U.S. companies from cooperating with the boycott. Efforts by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement — to bar financial, academic, and cultural exchanges with Israel — have been met with derision and a widespread public affairs campaign.
On the flip side, news that Saudi Arabia discriminates against Jewish travelers led some Jews to call for a boycott of American companies cooperating with the Saudis, while a regional anti-Israel boycott movement in Scotland inspired a serious call for Jews to boycott certain whiskeys.
In the latest salvo in the boycott wars, Israel’s Knesset passed a law, by a vote of 45 to 38, that would sanction individuals or organizations calling for a boycott of Israel or its settlements. The bill was aimed at homegrown boycott movements, notably a pledge by various Israeli artists not to perform at a cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel.
Israeli groups, mostly on the Left, are challenging the law, saying it specifically violates the country’s Basic Law and more generally violates Israel’s image as a bastion of democracy and free speech in a repressive Middle East. This latter argument seems the most convincing to us, members of an American-Jewish community whose kinship and support for Israel is based in large part on shared values. In defending Israel it has always been vital to emphasize the ways it presents a democratic alternative to its autocratic neighbors. As frustrating as delegitimization efforts can be, the anti-boycott law undermines this good will.
Earlier this year the secretary-general-designate of the World Jewish Congress warned that Israel’s internal critics risked becoming inadvertent “weapons suppliers” in the war of words against Israel. Like the drafters of the anti-boycott law, he seems to have gotten it exactly backward: The ability of Israelis to speak their minds is exactly what makes the war worth winning.