Our guest blogger is Shir Harel, a web development consultant based in Tel Aviv and Managing Editor of +972 Magazine.
This isn’t a “slippery slope” story about the dangerous wave of anti-democratic laws passed recently in Israel’s Knesset. At +972 Magazine, a digital publication of independent reporting and commentary from Israel and the Palestinian territories, we tell that story often.
When you wake up and realize that one of those laws has made it as risky for a young Israeli media organization to print certain political opinions as running libel, or violating copyright, something serious has already changed.
On July 11 the Israeli Knesset passed the Boycott Prohibition Law, which enables Israeli citizens to file civil suits against other Israelis who publicly endorse boycotts against Israel, Israeli institutions or even Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
In the days following, as our website ran coverage and analysis of the law, I found a new responsibility tacked on to my editing role at +972. In order to keep our site protected, I scoured our bloggers’ writing on the law for wording that could suggest they support boycotts of Israel or Israelis. If we were to run those words, any Israeli who feels they adversely affect his or her business or institution can now sue us for damages — even without proving loss of revenues. “I am deeply sorry for this,” wrote our chief editor, explaining +972’s new policy in light of this law. “No one is to post to the site a call for boycott. It’s not ideology, we simply can’t afford it.”
Because it leaves us now exposed to suits that threaten to shut our young project down, this law has paralyzed +972 Magazine’s free discussion of one of the major issues in the global debate of our region. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is a hotly contested issue that ignites passions across the political spectrum, and our website is no exception. To some bloggers BDS is deeply offensive, to some it is misguided, while to others it’s a moral imperative. The debate that surrounds it is required reading for anyone interested in Middle East politics.
Conducting rational, diverse, and free debate on issues exactly like these has been a hallmark of +972 Magazine since it was founded. Yet the Boycott Prohibition Law has now killed off open debate of BDS for us, along with a host of other questions to issues we’ve explored in the past, for example: Can a boycott of settlement-made products be effective and just? Is it right to boycott Israeli universities or cultural institutions? These are good questions, which deserve to be tackled from all sides. But some opinions on these issues are still protected under freedom of speech laws, while others aren’t. We still have a right to speak freely and oppose boycotts, but speaking in favor of them can now be considered a civil offense. There are now wrong answers to these questions, ones the state will not stand by us and protect.
We are proud to be a collective of bloggers whose opinions span the political spectrum, supplemented with a diverse roster of guest contributions. Yet this law has made it impossible for us to maintain an equal platform for everyone to make their argument heard. What’s more, as our website is legally responsible for comments our readers leave, we are now compelled to monitor and edit any comments that voice support for boycotts. We can’t even allow our readers the chance to freely argue back with us. This deeply anti-democratic law was anticipated and debated for months as it moved through the legislative process. After it passed, many felt disbelief that such a blatant infringement of freedom of speech could be legislated in Israel. But the day I edited a post for the first time not for style, language or form, but for its opinions, the magnitude of what happened hit me. What I’m doing now isn’t editing — I’ve become a censor.