Free speech advocates frequently criticize college campuses for their outlandish protests of right-wing speakers and anti-speech demonstrations. While these complaints certainly have merit, freedom of expression is in danger of encroachment from a much more influential institution than organized college students: the Israeli lobby.
Israel’s Knesset, the country’s unicameral elected legislature, passed a law in 2011 that penalizes “persons or organizations that boycott Israel or the settlements,” according to Haaretz. The Knesset passed the law in response to the growing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement crafted to garner international awareness and support for a free Palestine.
The article noted that anyone “calling for the boycott of Israel, including the settlements, can be sued by the boycott’s targets.” The legislation not only violates freedom of expression, but John Locke’s famous notion of the right to disposition of one’s property in any way one wishes.
Boycotts against oppressive regimes similar to Israel’s military rule in the West Bank have a robust and powerful history. Gandhi’s followers refused to consume British goods and held large gatherings to burn clothes. China’s May Fourth Movement featured a boycott of Japan, resulting in a 40 percent reduction of Japanese exports to China. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress implemented many successful boycotts to oppose South Africa’s apartheid state.
Anti-BDS legislation isn’t the Jewish nation’s only departure from natural rights. Israeli legal code is wrought with similar free speech infringements. For example, Palestinians can be prosecuted for posting a picture of a murdered loved one on Facebook based on how many likes and shares the post has. Moreover, a controversial ‘anti-terrorism’ law passed in 2016 obscures the legal difference between legitimate, peaceful protest and association with terrorist organizations, opening the door for even more free speech abuses.
As solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear more and more futile, the presence of civil disobedience and peaceful protest is evermore imperative. Banning peaceful forms of dissent is a bad political tactic and clearly antithetical to free speech principles. Unfortunately, this disastrous policy has been spreading around the world.
In Feb. 2016, the U.K. passed a law making it illegal for any entity receiving public funding to refuse to buy goods from illegal Israeli settlements. These bodies would not only lose their public funding, but additionally face “severe penalties” if they violate the statute, according to The Independent.
In Oct. 2016, France’s highest court upheld a conviction of a dozen activists who advocated sanctions and a boycott of Israel in order to end the occupation. The extremist criminals wore shirts lettered “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel” and handed out fliers insisting that “buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.”
The issue made the leap across the pond into a significant minority of U.S. state legislatures over the past few years. Here in Michigan, a law signed earlier this year stipulates that state agencies “may not enter into a contract with a person… unless the contract includes a representation that the person is not currently engaged in, and an agreement that the person will not engage in, the boycott of a person based in or doing business with a strategic partner.”
Last year, Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, issued an executive order requiring all agencies to cease dealing with businesses and organizations that support BDS.
Even worse, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee targeted the U.S. Congress earlier this year by writing a bill to criminalize BDS. The bill would have amended existing law so that, according to the ACLU, an individual or business could suffer a “minimum penalty of $250,000” and a “maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison” for participating in the boycott. Before reaching the public eye and faltering, the bill had 234 co-sponsors in the House and 43 in the Senate.
As a result of a Texas anti-BDS law, some Hurricane Harvey victims must agree to an absurd clause when applying for a relief grant. In Dickinson, Texas, the application reads, “the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.” Basing hurricane aid on political alignment is an unambiguous subversion of free speech and a clear example of discrimination.
With rampant, despotic persecution of Palestinians in the West Bank and economic strangulation in Gaza, peaceful activists have turned to economic boycott, but they continue to struggle against powers that be. Even if people approve of the military occupation of the West Bank, at least support Palestinians’ right to speak against it.
Cal Abbo is a freshman studying the liberal arts.