Leg­is­la­tor­sagain­st­freespeech

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - Jonathan Freed­land

Am­a­te­rial. The au­di­ence was woe­fully one-sided, con­sist­ing al­most en­tirely of com­mit­ted boy­cotters of Is­rael. At times the at­mos­phere got pretty nasty: there was re­peated jeer­ing, boo­ing and the odd ob­scene hand ges­ture from as­sorted mem­bers of the au­di­ence.

Still, I was not, de­spite what the JC said later, “vis­i­bly shaken”. I’ve ap­peared in front of sim­i­lar au­di­ences be­fore and my skin has thick­ened. (Brief tan­gent on that point: I won­der how many of those blog­gers and JC letter-writers who fre­quently de­nounce me as in­suf­fi­ciently “pro-Is­rael” reg­u­larly de­fend the coun­try, not from their arm­chair or at cosy gath­er­ings of like-minded Is­rael sup­port­ers such as the re­cent We Be­lieve con­fer­ence, but in front of Is­rael’s most stri­dent op­po­nents. Cer­tainly not one of them turned up at the South Bank to op­pose the boy­cott. Next time they call me a traitor to Is­rael or worse, re­mind me to ask them where they were on July 10.)

For all that, I did find the event use­ful. What it con­firmed out loud was that the hard core of boy­cott cam­paign­ers do not merely ob­ject to the post-1967 oc­cu­pa­tion— even if that dom­i­nates their pub­lic rhetoric — but to Is­rael as Is­rael. Speak­ers from the floor re­peat­edly re­turned to the al­leged ills of pre-1967 Is­rael and of Zion­ism it­self. In­deed, Naomi Foyle, the ac­tivist who had acted as a “vol­un­teer con­sul­tant” to the South Bank in or­gan­is­ing the de­bate, later blogged a con­cise re­sponse to my claim that the boy­cott cam­paign was anti-Is­rael rather than anti-oc­cu­pa­tion: “Damn right.”

I think it’s help­ful that the boy­cotters are ex­posed in this way. Be­cause many of those tempted to heed the boy­cott call — and it’s im­por­tant to dis­tin­guish fol­low­ers from lead­ers — will be drawn to it as a way to op­pose the oc­cu­pa­tion. Some, not all, will be less keen to join a cam­paign hos­tile to Is­rael’s very right to ex­ist.

So I was happy to stand against the boy­cott. But guess what hap­pened a few days later. Is­rael passed an anti-boy­cott law that seemed de­signed to con­firm ev­ery­thing the coun­try’s en­e­mies say about it.

A grotesque vi­o­la­tion of the ba­sic right of free speech, it makes it il­le­gal not just for an Is­raeli liv­ing in Tel Aviv to boy­cott, say, goods pro­duced in the West Bank but even to ad­vo­cate such an idea. At a stroke, it un­der­mines Is­rael’s re­peated claim to be “the only democ­racy in the Mid­dle East”.

This is what I mean about stand­ing on a very nar­row bridge. On one side are the Is­rael-haters. On the other are those lead­ing Is­rael into an ever darker place, backed by al­lies abroad who cheer them on, al­most never say­ing enough is enough. To their credit, many did speak out against the anti-boy­cott law – but that pro­posal is not a one­off. The Knes­set is now de­bat­ing a plan to drop Ara­bic as an of­fi­cial lan­guage, even though it is the mother tongue of one fifth of the pop­u­la­tion and has been re­spected as such since the day the state was founded.

So, yes, I con­demn the boy­cott, but I also con­demn the boy­cott law. I de­plore Is­rael’s en­e­mies, but I also de­plore acts of mad­ness like this.

And though the bridge feels so nar­row, I suspect there are many who stand in ex­actly the same place.

Jonathan Freed­land is a colum­nist for the Guardian

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