JERUSALEM — A new Israeli law that penalizes anyone who calls for a boycott of the Jewish state has galvanized the country's left-wing activists and sparked a fierce debate here over whether it poses a threat to democracy.
Commonly known as the "boycott law," the legislation, which passed earlier this week, largely is a response to boycotts by international activists of goods produced by Israel's West Bank settlements, on lands that Palestinians see as earmarked for their future state.
Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. While several international groups have called boycotting all goods from the settlements — such as produce and wine exported to Europe — homegrown efforts among left-wing Israelis to push for similar boycotts have been slow in coming and limited in number.
However, the new law appears to have re-energized efforts by Israel's left-wing groups to identify and draw attention to settlement goods.
"It has been a long-term effort that has suddenly gotten attention," said Asaf Sharon, an Israeli activist who's helped organize online campaigns. He said that a petition he'd placed online to ban settlement goods had gained 1,000 signatures over the last six months.
"Suddenly, from yesterday, we have jumped to 3,000 signatures," he said in an interview this week.
Anti-settlement groups such as Peace Now have promised to publish a list of settlement goods commonly stocked on Israeli supermarket shelves.
Dozens of editorials have appeared in the Hebrew press by left-wing figures who are challenging the law in Israel's high court. Writing in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, columnist Bradley Burston said the law was "the quiet sound of going fascist." He noted that many high-profile Israeli politicians, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, didn't attend the vote on the law.
Netanyahu, however, has defended the law, which was initiated by several lawmakers including Zeev Elkin, a member of the prime minister's Likud Party. In a news conference Monday, Elkin defended the law as "exactly like" U.S. and European laws that outlaw supporting certain anti-Israeli boycotts.
In the United States, the Export Administration Act prohibits companies from "supporting the boycott of Israel sponsored by the Arab League and certain Muslim countries." Opponents of the boycott bill say the comparison isn't accurate.
On Tuesday, the State Department issued a response to the boycott law, saying that the freedom to organize and protest was a democratic value that the United States and Israel long have shared.
The Anti-Defamation League, a leading organization fighting anti-Semitism and a longtime opponent of boycotts of Israel, criticized the law, saying it could impinge on the "basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression."
Several groups have launched a request that Israel's high court review the law on the grounds that it's undemocratic, a process that could take months.
Some members of the parliament, or Knesset, who supported the law are hoping to put it to use in the meantime.
On Wednesday, Alex Miller, from the Israel Beiteinu Party, announced that he'd apply the new measure by suing fellow lawmaker Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List-Ta'al. Tibi has called repeatedly for boycotting the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Miller said, and the law's provisions could make him liable for thousands of dollars in damages.
Tibi called the law "fascist" and "McCarthyist."
"This Knesset is the least tolerant, the most extreme and the most racist," Tibi said.
The Knesset also recently passed a "transparency bill" that established a committee to examine the funding sources of left-wing groups. Miller sponsored a new law called the "Naqba bill," which punishes any groups in Israel that support or hold rallies to mark the Palestinian Naqba, a day that notes the "catastrophe" of Israel's independence and the displacement of Palestinians.
Bolstered by their success with the boycott law, right-wing lawmakers announced this week that they'd build on the transparency law by reintroducing a bill to investigate where left-wing groups get their money.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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