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Narratives of the anti-Boycott Law

Democracy is fading into the night...

Reading the different opinion pieces about the latest Anti-Boycott Law, it strikes me that here we have a living example of the way narratives and facts interplay. Fact: the Knesset passed a law banning attempts to boycott either the State or any part thereof. But this fact is interpreted in radically different ways, each side of the political debate interpreting the ‘fact’ completely differently, placing it in completely different historical and political contexts.

On one side, the fact is understood as an essential step towards strengthening the Jewish state against unprecedented attacks on her legitimacy. According to this narrative, extreme left-wing organizations are conspiring with foreign forces to undermine the existence of the Jewish State. These organizations, it is suggested, who shouted and made a noise about the rule of law when it came to the interrogation of Dov Lior and the like over their support for Torat HaMelech, suddenly do not recognize the legitimacy of the rule of law when it comes to the anti-boycott law. Suddenly, these left-wing organizations cry out about the need for a constitution and hope to rely on the last bastion of left-wing, Ashkenazi domination, the Supreme Court.

On the other side, the fact is understood as the latest attempt by the ruling right-wing to silence all opposition, as an anti-democratic law which severely compromises freedom of speech in Israel. According to this narrative,  the left-wing organizations are desperately trying to defend the rights of minorities in Israel. They would suggest that their outcry against Dov Lior and his ilk, and against the anti-boycott law are indeed consistent, in that in both cases they are standing up for democracy. In the case of Dov Lior, they are standing up for the right of a minority group to protection from incitement to violence against them; in the case of the anti-boycott law, they are standing up for the right of the political minority to freedom of speech.  

According to the survey published in Friday’s Yediot Achronot, the country is roughly evenly divided when it comes to the recent right-wing legislation. 46% of the country think the legislation strengthens Israel; 42% think it weakens Israel. 45% are concerned for the future of democracy in Israel; 54% are not. And when it comes to which interpretation of events the public believes, 35% of the Israeli public believe that the left-wing organizations are responsible for the growing tensions and the divide in Israeli society, whereas around 32% blame Netanyahu and the right-wing MKs.

All sorts of things worry me about the current situation. One thing that strikes me, is that just as with the Israeli and Palestinian national narratives, in this case the left and right wing both claim the position of victim: the right feels victimized by years of left-wing, Ashkenazi domination; the left-wing now feels victimized by the current political reality. Neither feeling is helpful as we attempt to bridge the gaps and move forward.

The second thing that strikes me, and that I feel increasingly concerned about, is the spread of a simplistic understanding of democracy as majority rule. Underlying the right-wing legislation, and its justification by a number of different commentators in the press in recent days, is a complete lack of a concept of democracy that is also based on protecting minority rights. Time and again I hear people speak and read opinion pieces which completely fail to incorporate this essential aspect of democracy into their thinking: as if the mere fact that a majority of Parliament members vote in favour of a law is sufficient to make it democratic. Perhaps this is a reflection of the parlous state of civics education in our schools – and indeed, the current attempts to undermine it further only give me further cause for concern.

The third thing that concerns me is the possibility of an onslaught on the Supreme Court – with the idea that the political parties should somehow be equally represented on the bench. That’s all we need – for the ignorance and prejudice of our Knesset to be imported into the courtroom. Once that happens, all of us need to be afraid.

Just as when it comes to the Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the conflict, we have to try to find a way to bridge the divide. We have to hear each other’s narratives. We have to acknowledge the feelings of victimhood which both sides claim. We have to try and make each other feel safe. We have to educate people about the complexities of the situation. But above all else, we have to protect Israel’s increasingly fragile democracy. That is a cause we must all get behind. As a first step, there’s another demonstration – this time under the auspices of a wider range of parties and organizations, all feeling the need to take to the streets in support of democracy – Saturday night, July 23rd, in Tel Aviv. 
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