Guardian contributor characterizes proponents of Israel’s anti-BDS bill as supporters of “totalitarianism”

As I noted in yesterday’s post regarding Israel’s recent anti-boycott legislation, a fair and honest understanding of the law (which passed the Knesset today, but which will almost certainly be challenged in court) would take into account similar US and EU precedents – the latter of which (under the auspices of the EU Court of Human Rights) ruled that when France prosecuted the mayor of the town of Seclin, Jean-Claude Fernand Willem, (“for provoking discrimination on national, racial and religious grounds”) after he initiated a boycott against Israel, Fernand Willem’s rights to free expression were not violated, per EU law.

Similarly, the US has anti-boycott laws in effect which prohibit individuals or companies involved with commerce from participating in all boycotts imposed by foreign countries (including but not limited to Israel) which are not sanctioned by the United States – allowing for imprisonment of up to five years for those found guilty of violating this law.

While Harriet Sherwood’s piece on the Israeli law was written on the eve of the vote, the passage of the bill today elicited a column in CiF by Israeli academic, Carlo Strenger (Israel’s boycott ban is down to siege mentality).

One of the most characteristic rhetorical ticks of Israel’s enemies – and even some far-left Zionists – is their tendency to employ the most careless hyperbole when faced with Israeli legislation or government policies which they don’t support. They’re not content to provide level-headed and thoughtful counter-arguments but, rather, often must impute the worst motives and, often, hysterically characterize the issue as one where Israel’s very democracy is under siege.

While Mya Guarnieri’s CiF piece last year is a perfect illustration of this dynamic – where the Hebrew speaking opponent of the Jewish state’s existence framed the bigoted remarks of some rabbis as a sign of a rising tide of “religious fascism” and an indication that Judaism’s very soul” was on trial – Strenger’s essay today similarly shows no rhetorical restraint.

Typical of the hysterical style of far left commentary on Israel is the tendency to engage in rhetoric long on dramatic, extremely broad, and often vague, accusations, yet woefully short on details to buttress such claims.

In this fashion, Strenger begins by attempting to frame the anti-BDS legislation as part of a “flood of anti-democratic laws” passed by the 2009 Knesset, yet only cites two, one of which is known as the  “Nakba law” – which he grossly mischaracterizes as “forbidding the public commemoration of the expulsion of…Palestinians during the 1948 war.”  In fact, the law he mentions requires the state to fine local authorities and other state-funded bodies for holding events marking Nakba Day on Independence Day, (or supporting armed resistance or racism).  There’s absolutely nothing in the bill which even comes close to forbidding citizens from commemorating Nakba Day – as the law merely, and quite reasonably it seems, rejects the notion that the state of Israel has to fund institutions who deem Israel’s very existence as something to be mourned.

Strenger then notes, about the Nakba bill he so misrepresented, that “since then, a growing number of attempts were made to curtail freedom of expression and to make life for human rights groups more difficult,” which I’m assuming refers to the NGO Transparency Law which, again, doesn’t curtail freedom of expression at all, but simply requires nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations to disclose funding from foreign governments.

Turning to the anti-BDS law, Strenger begins by acknowledging that the law only makes active pro-boycott activity “a civil offence that can be punished with a fine”, before contextualizing these myriad of “assaults” on “free expression” as inspired by “fear, stupidity and confusion”, and points to Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as embodying this brand of “hardline” right-wing Israeli politics – which he defines as those who “believe that the 1967 borders are indefensible, and that Palestinians cannot be trusted”.

Indeed, such a narrative of what constitutes “hard-line” right-wing thought is the perfect illustration of the failure of left-wing Israelis to understand that their increasingly marginal representation in Israeli politics is owed largely to the fact that, unlike the overwhelming majority of Israelis, they’ve failed to learn the lessons and failures of Oslo, and Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and South Lebanon.  Only on the fringes of the Israeli leftist elite can you find suspicion of the Palestinian leadership’s capacity to truly deliver a lasting and genuine peace, and fear over the capacity of Israel to protect itself from within pre-’67 borders, as ideas which are even mildly controversial.  

What Strenger refers to as Bibi’s “fear mongering” is the sober reality – of hostile neighbors, many of whom still refuse to acknowledge the right of the Jewish state to exist –  which most in the country has grasped for some time now.

Strenger, again setting himself apart from us mere political mortals and our irrational fears, accuses not just the electorate but, also, the political class of surrendering to pessimism and a “siege mentality”, decrying their unsophisticated misunderstandings of the world, and even criticizes the belief “that Israel is…singled out unfairly for criticism” – as if the continuing bias against Israel in the international arena is even debatable.

Finally, while Strenger concludes by expressing optimism that Israel’s “beleaguered” democracy will survive, and attests to the Jewish state’s fundamental liberal nature, his conclusion also describes his political opponents – Israeli MKs and their followers who support the anti-BDS law, the Nakba law”, and the NGO Transparency law – as representing nothing short of “totalitarianism”.

For Strenger, like so many of his fellow far left political allies in and outside of Israel, democratic debates within the Knesset are never merely legitimate disagreements between political adversaries – but battles between progressives and extremists who conspire to destroy Israel’s democracy. 

My guess is that it never occurred to Strenger that he and his fellow political travelers are often guilty of the same “fear mongering” they’re so quick to impute to their enemies.

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