by Daniel Estrin
The controversy that's erupted in Israel over a new law was entirely predictable. The law allows Jewish settlers in the West Bank to sue Israelis who promote boycotts of their products.
The controversy reflects a growing chasm in Israel. On one side are those who support the country's 44-year-long occupation of the West Bank as an historic Jewish right. On the other are those who view the presence of soldiers and settlers in the Palestinian territory as a national calamity.
The new law says an Israeli can be punished if they boycott an Israeli company or institution that's in Israel, or in an area under Israel's control. That last clause —- an area under Israel's control — is a reference to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. If an Israeli calls for a boycott of products made by settlers, those settlers can sue her.
The law passed at night, and immediately, the Israeli organization Peace Now started a Facebook page. Danielle Blumenstyk is one of 4,000-some Israelis who joined. The first thing they did was to defy the new law.
"We are blatantly saying on our Facebook page," Blumenstyk said. "We are calling out to a boycott of settlements. Sue us. That's what it says, black on white."
Blumenstyk and other activists with Peace Now frantically worked the phones today in their cramped basement office, urging celebrities to support a boycott of products made by Jewish settlers.
"This is the petition we are trying to get people to sign today," Blumenstyk said, holding up a large poster with the word "boycott" in big letters. She hopes Israelis will sign it.
"We're hoping that this protest will … create a situation in which the law will be revoked," Blumenstyk said.
Emotions about boycotts run high in Israel. Last year, more than 60 actors and directors from six major Israeli theater companies refused to perform at a theatre in Ariel, a West Bank settlement.
The theatre troupes are government subsidized. But the actors said they couldn't perform in Ariel in good conscience because they consider Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace. That infuriated Israeli politicians like Danny Danon.
"When we heard about major groups who decided not to perform in Ariel, we decided enough is enough," said Danon, who co-sponsored the new law.
"You cannot receive funding from the government and decide that you are not performing," Danon added." I think that it is part of democracy to put limits. In democracy, when someone is hurting someone else, you have to put limits."
The other co-sponsor of the law, Zeev Elkin, insists that it's "not meant to muzzle anyone, but to protect the citizens of Israel" who are settlers.
Parliament member Yohanan Plesner, however, predicts that the law, which seeks to impede boycotts, will only encourage them.
"As a result of this legislation, and as a result of the protest that it will give rise to, they will probably begin all sorts of boycotts," Plesner said. "So obviously it will backfire because it's a stupid piece of legislation."
An Israeli civil rights group says it will challenge the boycott law in Israel's Supreme Court in the coming days.