Anti-Semitic acts are on the rise again in Europe. Amid an alarming increase in violent attacks against Jews in France, including several high profile murders, scores of Jews have decided to leave France for Israel. Some Jewish teenagers in Germany, tired of attacks and abuse, are following suit. There are similar concerns about antisemitism in the UK, with around 1 in 3 British Jews saying they are thinking about emigrating as a result.
For many Europeans, the hatred of Jews of the 1930s and 1940s may seem like ancient history. For Jews, especially for those in Germany, the trauma and collective memory hasn’t faded.
Governments like Germany’s are right to be concerned about the virulent cancer of anti-Semitism. But the joint CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and Bündnis90/Die Grünen motion that passed the Bundestag recently that present boycotts of Israel as anti-Semitic is misplaced and the wrong way to combat anti-Semitism. The German government should reject it.
There’s no doubt that some anti-Semites have learned to use the term “Israel” or “Zionist” as a substitute for “Jews.” That should be called out. But it’s also true that legitimate criticism of Israeli state actions is sometimes wrongly tarred as anti-Semitic.
Anti-boycott measures, from the US to Israel, have often targeted people concerned about human rights abuses in illegal settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Twenty-seven US states have passed laws or policies that penalize businesses, organizations or individuals that engage in or call for boycotts of Israel. Human Rights Watch research has shown that many US states are using these laws to punish companies that refuse to do business with illegal West Bank settlements.
New York, for example, has published a list of 11 companies it is prohibited from investing in under a 2016 executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The list includes companies that merely cut settlement ties. One, the Co-operative Group, a UK grocery, stopped doing business with suppliers known to buy produce from settlements, while saying it “remained committed to sourcing products from and trading with Israeli suppliers that do not source from settlements.” Another, Cactus Supermarkets of Luxembourg, suspended offering Israeli produce until suppliers demonstrated that the goods do not come from settlements, while continuing to offer other Israeli imports, said a statement by an activist group following negotiations with the company.
Human Rights Watch rejects all forms of anti-Semitism, is not part of the BDS movement and takes no position on boycotts of Israel. But years of our research has shown that it is not possible to do business in the settlements without contributing to or benefitting from human rights abuse and violations of international humanitarian law. The only way companies can meet their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is to stop operating in settlements. Anti-boycott laws punish companies that take such action in line with the international legal responsibilities and the German and European Union position on settlements.
The Israeli government has its own anti-boycott legislation. One year ago, authorities used a 2017 amendment to its Law of Entry that bans entry to those who call for boycotts of Israel to revoke the work visa of my Human Rights Watch colleague Omar Shakir. When we challenged the deportation order in court, the government highlighted his promotion of our research activities of businesses such as Airbnb in settlements and our recommendation that they halt their activities in settlements because of their harm to Palestinians’ rights. Last month, an Israeli court upheld the deportation order, claiming that our work on businesses in settlement constitutes a call to boycott Israel. We have appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court.
Everyone has the right under international human rights law to express their views through non-violent means, however abhorrent one might find them, including participating in boycotts. Authorities may restrict speech, but only under narrow and stringent conditions.
David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has stated that “Boycott…has long been understood as a legitimate form of expression, protected under Article 19(2)” of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In a review of anti-boycott laws in the US, Kaye concluded that the legislation “appears clearly aimed at combatting political expression” and that “economic penalties designed to suppress a particular political viewpoint” would not meet the conditions under the ICCPR for permissible restraints on speech.
In Germany, the term boycott evokes memories of the boycott of Jewish-owned shops in the 1930s. To equate that dark chapter with boycotts of Israel over its rights abuses is to trivialize our history. Activists worldwide use boycotts to challenge rights abuses and seek political change. Boycotts played key roles in the US struggle for African-American rights and in international campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and atrocities in Darfur.
Instead of pressing ahead with anti-boycott measures likely to restrict free expression and target those campaigning for human rights, German authorities should address resurgent anti-Semitism by investigating and punishing threats and violence against Jews and other minorities and by condemning intolerant speech by far-right politicians, and by educating people on the dangers of unchecked hatred. Officials could start, for example, by addressing head-on the anti-Semitic bullying in our schools. These measures are far more likely to be effective than restrictions on speech, which in the end will do nothing to combat hatred.