Israel and BDS: The only 'democracy' in the Middle East where New Zealanders get sued

Israel and BDS: The only 'democracy' in the Middle East where New Zealanders get sued
Comment: Israel's theatrical criminalisation of BDS shows it considers the movement a serious threat to its legitimacy and existence, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
05 Feb, 2018
New Zealand activist Sachs (R) called on Lorde to cancel her Tel Aviv concert [Getty/Facebook]
Imagine for a moment you're a New Zealander living in a country ranked the fourth most vibrant democracy in the world. 

In an expression of your dearly loved democratic freedoms you post an open letter on a local blog urging a New Zealand born pop star to not perform her scheduled concert in Israel, because "Palestinians living in the occupied territories do not enjoy the same rights Israeli citizens enjoy, they are denied freedom of movement and often basic services and necessities".

As such, you "believe that an economic, intellectual and artistic boycott is an effective way of speaking out against these crimes".

Now imagine that shortly after posting this blog, you receive a letter from a law firm in Tel Aviv that outlines the intent to sue you for nearly $15,000 on behalf of three Israeli teenagers who had purchased tickets for the concert.

Had this happened to you, you might well be wondering what on earth was going on, but also where your right to peaceful, non-violent, free speech had suddenly disappeared to.

Well, this is exactly what happened to two young New Zealanders last week, when they received a letter from Ms Darshan-Leitner, leader of Shurat HaDin Israel law centre. The group seeks to punish Israel's critics and political opponents.

Read more: Radiohead in Tel Aviv: It's no worse than playing in the US

Their mission statement reads, "We are dedicated to protecting the State of Israel. By defending against lawfare suits, fighting academic and economic boycotts, and challenging those who seek to delegitimise the Jewish State, Shurat HaDin is utilising court systems around the world to go on the legal offensive against Israel's enemies."

According to Darshan-Leitner, the three Israeli teens "were hurt by the show's cancellation. They are fans of the singer, went immediately to purchase tickets as soon as they heard she is coming to Israel.

But, she continues, "There is also the national side to the lawsuit. As citizens of this country, as citizens who will next year serve this country in the military or civil service, they were hurt from the BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanction] movement."

The act of boycotting anything is an act of free speech

This action against the New Zealanders constitutes the first ever use of a controversial Israeli law passed by the country's parliament, the Knesset, in 2011. It allows Israeli individuals, corporations, and even the state itself to punish anyone who supports the boycott of Israel itself, or Israeli owned businesses.

Launched in 2005, the BDS movement seeks to bring Israel into compliance with the international law, specifically the Geneva Convention, and multiple UN Resolutions. It's a non-violent form of political protest, and the exact kind used to end Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

The act of boycotting anything is an act of free speech.

In criminalising free speech, Israel again makes a mockery of its favorite applause line, "The Middle East's only democracy,".  The phrase - used so often by so many Israeli diplomats, politicians, propagandists and sympathisers - has become the Apartheid state's unofficial slogan.

But the claim is every bit as comically misplaced as the letter 'D' in DPRK, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or the letter 'I' in Islamic State.

In each of the aforementioned states and former pseudo-states, the right to free speech is denied by a brutal security apparatus that seeks to silence and crush any criticism or opposition, no matter how fair and reasonable that criticism and opposition might be.

The difference, of course, is North Korea and IS are sanctioned and bombed by the world's sole global superpower, the United States, while Israel is supported to the tune of $3.8 billion per year in military aid, used to maintain the occupation, colonisation and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Completely forsaken by the entire international community, the struggle for Palestinian liberation is stymied by Israel and its allies at every turn.

When small numbers of Palestinians protest Israel's illegal occupation with violence, they are mercilessly crushed and the broader population collectively punished. When Palestinians turn to non-violent forms of dissent, they suffer a similar fate.

The lawsuit against the New Zealanders amounts to little more than political theatre

While the lawsuit against the New Zealanders amounts to little more than political theatre and attention seeking, the criminalisation of the boycott movement has morphed from what was once an abstract hypothetical, into something that is having real consequences.

Last month, Israel published its "BDS blacklist," identifying organisations that have been banned from entering the country because of their calls to boycott Israel. The list even includes the peace activist group Jewish Voice for Peace. Yes, you read that right, Israel is even banning Jews who criticise its policies.

"We have shifted from defense to offence," boasts Gilad Erdan, the minister for strategic affairs, according to Haaretz. "The boycott organisations need to know that the state of Israel will act against them and not allow them to enter its territory to harm its citizens."

In other words, Israel tacitly admits its legitimacy and existence is threatened by the mere act of speech, and, in turn, it has no other choice other than to punish those who speak out against its criminal policies, in much the same way other contemporary authoritarian, anti-democratic states behave.

On Wednesday, one of the New Zealanders responded to the lawsuit on Twitter, writing:

"Israel the only 'democracy' in the Middle East where New Zealanders get sued for exercising their freedom of speech... in New Zealand."

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.