Smuggled into a Conservative Party manifesto, widely seen as thin on concrete policy proposals, was a commitment to introduce primary legislation to stop public bodies from supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns targeted at Israel.
Last month, UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues Eric Pickles put more meat on the bones of this proposal by indicating that the legislation would prevent public bodies from working with those who support BDS. Whatever this means in practice, the move would represent a serious assault on fundamental freedom of expression.
Theresa May’s government had already moved to suppress BDS by attaching regulations to existing pension law that sought to prevent Local Government Pension Schemes from divesting from companies complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) challenged these moves in the courts and a final judgment by the Supreme Court is expected shortly. On a narrow level, the government’s proposed bill may be seen as an attempt to bypass any judgement in the Supreme Court which rules its pension regulations illegal. But the government’s actions need to be understood in a broader and more global context.
For at least five years, Israel has been coordinating a campaign to criminalise the BDS movement and delegitimise groups calling for any form of sanction to address its continuing violations of international law. At the domestic level this has manifested in Israel introducing a raft of laws including the “Anti-Boycott Law” in 2011, which means that individuals or organisations who endorse a call to use BDS tactics are liable to have legal action brought against them. Last month Israel deported Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch Director, due to the organisation’s opposition to settlements in the occupied West Bank and its calls for companies to stop working with the settlements.
The so-called “lawfare” strategy has also seen Israel persuading friendly western governments to introduce laws to suppress BDS. More than 20 US states have passed bills and orders that penalise support for BDS. In France in 2010, the Justice Minister issued an instruction to state authorities to consider calls for boycott illegal - a move which has led to more than 30 activists being charged with criminal activity for participating in BDS actions.
The underpinning narrative used to support these legislative moves is that campaigning for BDS is an inherently anti-Semitic activity. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism is crucial to this tactic, and we have already seen how it’s been used to shape political discourse on this issue. For instance, one example cited in the IHRA definition is “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
This assertion can be, and often is, deployed to say that criticism of the range of racist laws which discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. In 2018, a group of MPs called on the UK Government to stop Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) because they claimed it was anti-Semitic and in violation of the IHRA. In fact, IAW is an annual series of educational events that seek to raise awareness about Israel’s military occupation and discriminatory policies which have been shown to fit the legal definition of apartheid.
Another example cited under the IHRA is “requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”. This line is used to characterise calls for any form of sanctions against Israel as anti-Semitic. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, for example, defined Airbnb’s decision to delist properties in illegal settlements in the West Bank as the 6th worst worldwide incident of anti-Semitism in 2018. Ironically the Centre also responded to Airbnb’s action by calling for a global boycott of the company – this was a key part of the body of pressure that led Airbnb to reverse its decision. It is examples like these that have led to the IHRA being severely criticised by leading human rights lawyers, academic experts on anti-Semitism, and bodies like the Institute for Race Relations.
The shape of the legislation proposed by the government has not been made clear and was not clarified in last month’s Queen’s speech. However, Pickles’ formulation suggests it may mirror laws used in the US which in turn inspired a motion debated by Barnet Council in 2018. That motion, eventually shelved after lobbying pressure from PSC amongst other bodies, would have committed the council to not letting or renting space to any individual or group promoting BDS. A draconian interpretation of the wording could have meant council housing being denied, for example, to members of Trade Unions who have BDS policies.
The government’s moves are not only a serious assault upon the rights of Palestinians to articulate their oppression and call for peaceful action to address it, as well as the rights of those who wish to respond to that call by supporting BDS campaigns. It is also a worrying harbinger of this government’s willingness to follow the Trump model in abandoning core values that are the glue of a decent society – upholding the rule of law internationally and domestically alongside the fundamental right of freedom of expression. In this regard, the proposed legislation must be opposed not just by those for whom justice for the Palestinian people is a core campaign, but by all who care about safeguarding fundamental democratic principles.
Ben Jamal is the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).