Greatest Threat to Free Speech in the West: Criminalizing Activism Against Israeli Occupation

THE U.K. GOVERNMENT today announced that it is will be illegal for “local [city] councils, public bodies, and even some university student unions … to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products, or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.” Thus, any entities that support or participate in the global boycott of Israeli settlements will face “severe penalties.”

This may sound like an extreme infringement of free speech and political activism — and, of course, it is — but it is far from unusual in the West. The opposite is now true. There is a very coordinated and well-financed campaign led by Israel and its supporters literally to criminalize political activism against Israeli occupation, based on the particular fear that the worldwide campaign of Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment, or BDS — modeled after the 1980s campaign that brought down the Israel-allied apartheid regime in South Africa — is succeeding.

The Israeli website +972 reported last year about a pending bill that “would ban entry to foreigners who promote the [BDS] movement that aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.” In 2011, a law passed in Israel that “effectively ban[ned] any public call for a boycott — economic, cultural, or academic — against Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense.”

But the current censorship goal is to make such activism a crime not only in Israel, but in Western countries generally. And it is succeeding.

THIS TREND TO outlaw activism against the decades-long Israeli occupation — particularly though not only through boycotts against Israel — has permeated multiple Western nations and countless institutions within them. In October, we reported on the criminal convictions in France of 12 activists “for the ‘crime’ of advocating sanctions and a boycott against Israel as a means of ending the decadeslong military occupation of Palestine,” convictions upheld by France’s highest court. They were literally arrested and prosecuted for “wearing shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Long live Palestine, boycott Israel’” and because “they also handed out fliers that said that ‘buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.’”

As we noted, Pascal Markowicz, chief lawyer of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewish communities, published this celebratory decree (emphasis in original): “BDS is ILLEGAL in France.” Statements advocating a boycott or sanctions, he added, “are completely illegal. If [BDS activists] say their freedom of expression has been violated, now France’s highest legal instance ruled otherwise.” In Canada last year, officials threatened criminal prosecution against anyone supporting boycotts against Israel.

In the U.S., unbeknownst to many, there are similar legislative proscriptions on such activism, and a pending bill would strengthen the outlawing of BDS. As the Washington Post reported last June, “A wave of anti-BDS legislation is sweeping the U.S.” Numerous bills in Congress encourage or require state action to combat BDS.

Eyal Press warned in a must-read New York Times op-ed last month that under a Customs Bill passed by both houses of Congress and headed to the White House, “American officials will be obligated to treat the settlements as part of Israel in future trade negotiations,” a provision specifically designed “to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a grass-roots campaign.” But as Press notes, under existing law — which is almost never discussed — “Washington already forbids American companies to cooperate with state-led boycotts of Israel.”

The real purpose of this new law, as Press explains it, is to force American companies to treat settlements in the West Bank — which virtually the entire world views as illegal — as a valid part of Israel, by outlawing any behavior that would be deemed cooperative with a boycott of companies occupying the West Bank. U.S. companies would be forced to pretend that products produced in the occupied territories are actually produced in “Israel.” The White House announced that it will sign the bill despite its opposition to the AIPAC-backed pro-settlement provision.

Rahul Saksena of Palestine Legal said that “the BDS provision in the federal customs bill, and the dozens of anti-BDS bills being introduced in Congress and state legislatures across the U.S., are examples of the lengths that Israel’s fiercest advocates and the lawmakers who bend over backward to accommodate them will go to shut down any conversation critical of Israeli policies and supportive of Palestinian freedom.” Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs for J Street (which opposes BDS), told The Intercept: “The references in the Customs Act to ‘Israeli-controlled territories’ are just one instance of a larger effort to sneak Green Line-blurring language into legislation at both the state and national level.”

Under the existing laws, American companies have been fined for actions deemed supportive of boycotts aimed at Israel. For decades, U.S. companies and their foreign subsidiaries, for instance, have been required by law to refuse to comply with the Arab League boycott of Israel. Penalties for violators include up to 10 years of imprisonment.

In 2010, GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Company, a Korean firm owned by General Motors, was fined $88,500 by the Office of Antiboycott Compliance for 59 anti-boycott violations, including the “crime” of declaring on a customs form: “We hereby state that the carrying vessel … is allowed to enter the Libya ports [sic].” At the time, Libyan law did not allow Israeli goods or ships that had previously stopped in Israel to enter Libyan ports, and the company’s seemingly banal declaration that it was complying with Libyan law was deemed by the U.S. government to constitute support for a boycott of Israel, and it was thus fined.

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