Liberalism is both a strength and a source of weakness.
Free societies are most certainly handicapped by their adherence to liberal values. Freedom of expression and conscience allows hate filled sectarians to build powerful political movements. Freedom from torture may well result, upon occasion, in an undiscovered terrorist bomb going off. Liberal societies may, at times, find themselves so hamstrung by choices and competing arguments that they become paralysed and incapable of action. And so on.
At the same time, it is only liberal societies which have the ability to stand up to authoritarian and totalitarian politics. They represent the promise, to those oppressed, that there is an alternative to those nightmare states which ban free expression and promote torture. In an open society, novel and creative ways of responding to challenges are more easily developed. More to the point: cultures which cherish liberal values are capable of developing bottom up, civil society responses to the challenges they face. Authoritarian cultures look for top down solutions, which may well fail to engage an apathetic citizenry.
So, boycotts and anti boycott laws?
Quite simply, people should have a right to boycott who they want. Israelis who want to boycott their own country, or produce from the West Bank, should be free to do so. Although, frankly, I do think that those who call for a boycott of Israel, or who participate in “direct action” against Israeli producers are often antisemitic, they aren’t always. People, particularly within Israel, may have diverse reasons for making the stand they do. This is a pretty basic freedom.
Boycotts are a direct attack on Israel, and often are a means of promoting hostility to Jews. However a society which believes that anti-boycott legislation will fight those twin demons is mistaken. Such laws weaken the ability to fight back against discrimination and hatred.
Yes, the US has an anti-boycott law, and the European Court of Human Rights has held that France is free to convict politicians who call for boycotts of Israel. This does not make the Israeli law proper or prudent. Indeed, the Israeli law is in a number of respects, more far reaching and problematic than those precedents.
It isn’t just me who says so.
- Israel’s Attorney General believes that the law “borders on unconstitutionality“, and prominent Israeli jurists share that opinion.
- The ADL’s Abe Foxman has said that the law constitutes “an unnecessary impingement of Israelis’ basic democratic right to freedom of speech”.
- So too, for that matter, does the US.
Ultimately, this comes down to a simple calculus. Are free societies more robust than authoritarian ones. Liberals believe that a free society is self-correcting, and that authoritarian societies become sclerotic and fail.
If you share that conclusion, then you’re a liberal, and should oppose this law.
Michael Weiss at the Telegraph says:
But leave that to one side. What this new anti-boycott law amounts to is a codified commandment: “Thou shalt not de-legitimise.” Rather than confront obnoxious or dodgy opinions, which the so-called BDS movement represents, the Knesset would rather ban those opinions altogether. Zionism used to be made of sterner stuff.