Photo Credit: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr
Demonstrator calling for boycotting Israel

Following a heated debate, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday approved for its first reading in the Knesset plenum a bill that would allow Israeli courts to require payment of 100,000 shekels ($28,000) in compensation without requiring proof of damage from anyone who “maliciously, more than once” calls for a boycott of Israel. The fine could reach 500,000 shekels ($140,000) if it can be proven the activity was systematic.

Nine committee members supported the bill, which still needs to pass its second and third plenum readings to become a law. Lawmakers from the opposition abstained.

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The bill, sponsored by MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) and other MKs, is an amendment to the original Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott, passed in 2011, which states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation with the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, may be sued in civil court by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott.

The law, commonly known as the Boycott Law, also allows the Israeli authorities to deny benefits such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts from individuals or organizations if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have committed to participate in a boycott.

Three years ago, the High Court of Justice, in response to a petition by journalist Uri Avnery, struck down a clause in the law that allowed unlimited compensation payments to be imposed without proof of damages, but allowed claimants to sue for compensation from boycott supporters if damage could be proven. The justices said the voided clause would have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.

The opinion of Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, submitted ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, said the bill “raises significant constitutional difficulties.” According to Yinon, “Despite the offensive nature of a boycott call, it is still an expression covered by the right to freedom of expression and is considered a nonviolent tool for political change. Accordingly, a call for a boycott on ideological, social or religious grounds is a common, albeit controversial tool used in public discourse, and which usually does not lead to the imposition of tort liability or administrative restrictions.”

Yinon’s opinion continued: “In the public discourse there are calls for boycotts directed at artists because of their political statements, at academic institutions for expressing controversial positions, or against controversial artistic works, or against entities that do not observe kashrut.”

The committee’s legal advisory team recommended that, in view of the difficulties, “alternatives to the proposed arrangement should be considered that would be congruent with accepted constitutional tests.”

Justice Committee Chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) said the significance of the bill is that anyone who calls to boycott Israel will be fined. He acknowledged that the court’s ruling does not agree with the proposed bill, and stated: “The question is: who is the legislator? Should we adapt ourselves to the High Court of Justice, or should the High Court of Justice adapt itself to the laws we legislate in the Knesset? I am of the clear opinion that if democracy is based on the three branches of government, then the ball goes back to the legislative, which decides, and the other branches must align themselves according to its decision.”

MK Kisch referred to the cancellation of the friendly soccer match against Argentina, saying “How symbolic is it that we are discussing the amendment to the Boycott Law on this day. Against the BDS we must be united and send out a clear call that the State of Israel cannot be boycotted. Unfortunately, the law was emptied of any meaning due to the High Court of Justice ruling, and it hasn’t been implemented in seven years. There is no doubt that [the head of the Palestinian Football Association] Jibril Rajoub had a significant role in the cancellation of the match against Argentina. This tool (the bill) is meant to harm all those who seek to harm us; those who were glad the game against Argentina was cancelled. Rajoub is doing it systematically, and we will operate against him. A boycott on Israel must have a painful price, mainly if it comes from within.”

MK Dov Khenin (Joint Arab List) responded, “You want to cancel the courts and replace them. Eventually, the High Court of Justice will reject the bill, as it has already rejected this specific amendment. The opposition to boycotts has widespread support, apart from the boycott of the [Judea and Samaria] settlements. I think the settlements are a disaster and a genuine danger to the future of the state; so, as an Israeli patriot, I will do all I can to stop them.”

Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminitz said, “We’ve expressed our opinion in the ministerial committee that there are significant constitutional problems with this bill which cast a doubt on the ability to advance this legislation in the High Court of Justice, and from our perspective as well. The ministerial committee decided to advance the bill, with the consent of the Justice Minister, the Minister of Strategic Affairs and the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs.”

The following MKs voted in favor of the bill: Committee Chairman Slomiansky, Kisch, David Bitan (Likud), Miki Zohar (Likud), Tali Ploskov (Kulanu), Michael Malchieli (Shas), Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), and Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beitenu).

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