In his novel 1984, George Orwell gave us the memorable term “thoughtcrime” to describe thoughts which the state punishes to protect itself from criticism. The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s recent decision to bar the members of numerous BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) groups from traveling to Israel is punishing them for the “thoughtcrime” of trying to voluntarily persuade people to boycott Israeli goods. BDS members taking this position are violating no one’s rights, but the Israeli travel bans, by contrast, do violate people’s rights, ironically making the Israeli government guilty of the very illiberality that the BDS movement has long accused it of.
In a free country, every individual has the right to refrain from purchasing any product of their choice. They also have the right to try to persuade their fellow citizens to change their purchasing habits. For example, anyone has the right to become a vegetarian and refrain from eating meat. They also have the right to tell others that they should become vegetarians too – even if this causes some employees of meat companies to lose their jobs due to a fall in demand.
Economist William H. Hutt – most famous for his vocal opposition to South African apartheid – used to speak of “consumer sovereignty,” which means the right of every consumer to buy or not buy whatever he wants. It follows that everyone has a right to refrain from purchasing Israeli goods.
They may also try to use words to persuade others to follow suit.
The harm which boycott and divestment does to Israel is no different than the harm vegetarians do to cattle farmers when they cease to buy their product.
No consumer has an obligation to purchase anyone’s product, and therefore, no seller can complain their rights have been violated when a consumer chooses not to purchase from them.
By contrast, the Israeli government’s travel ban is a violation of rights. Every person has a right to freely travel as long as they do not commit crimes against others. When a person who is innocent of any wrongdoing finds their ability to travel restricted, their rights have been violated. By restricting travel in response to mere expressions of opinion, the Israeli government is committing exactly the sort of illiberality which BDS has always accused it.
On the other hand, the 2005 open letter entitled “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS” does unfortunately “call upon international civil society ... to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel.” In essence, advocates of BDS wish to impose their opinions on others. It is not enough for them to voluntarily boycott Israeli goods themselves.
They wish to force their fellow citizens to join their boycott, whether they want to or not.
This is particularly damning because not all Israeli companies are necessarily complicit in the policies of the Israeli government. Even Israelis who oppose the Israeli government would be subject to an embargo.
The academic boycott of Israeli universities is particularly odious.
According to the statement of purpose by Scholars Without Borders (to which I am a signatory) – authored by Steve Horwitz and Sarah Skwire – “The movement to Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction (BDS) Israel by shutting down intellectual exchange with Israeli academics is a shameful attempt to curtail academic freedom and quash the exchange of ideas and information that is at the heart of peaceful human cooperation and social progress.” There are few things more illiberal than a boycott of academic professors – many of whom do not even support the Israeli government’s policies to begin with.
Indeed, I must admit that there is a certain poetic justice in the Israeli government’s response: if BDS advocates seek to impose legal embargoes against Israel, then Israel will impose an embargo against them. If BDS wishes to silence the opinions of academics and professors, then Israel will silence BDS. The Israeli government will do to them exactly what they want to do to Israel.
But two wrongs do not make a right.
The Israeli government should never stoop to their level. If BDS illiberally advocates embargoes and sanctions – even against academics – then the Israeli government should respond by maintaining the moral high ground.
Demonstrate to BDS that the Israeli government is liberal even to its critics.
Silencing the opposition only confirms their accusations. Most importantly, BDS advocacy is nothing more than mere speech. In a free society, individuals have the right to express their opinions – even when their opinions are wrong. Even when their opinions threaten the ruling government.
Especially when their opinions threaten the government. Any state which can maintain itself only by silencing the opposition proves itself unfit to rule. A regime which prosecutes thoughtcrime only condemns itself. The travel ban against advocates of BDS will only prove that the Israeli government is exactly as illiberal as BDS claimed it was.
The author is a PhD student in economics at Texas Tech University, and a research assistant for the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University.