A boycott fightback that we should copy


November 24, 2016 23:28

In recent years, the annual general meetings of the British security firm G4S have become a tense battleground between genuine investors and supporters of the Palestinian boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) campaign. The latter demand that G4S immediately cease all operations in Israel, where it runs prisons on behalf of the Israeli government.

So far, BDS in Britain has had limited success with UK quoted firms. Efforts, for instance, to block J Sainsbury from selling fresh produce from West Bank settlements sourced by Israeli fruit marketing groups have been rejected.

Nevertheless, BDS has made big inroads in Europe with Dutch and Norwegian pension funds disinvesting from Israeli firms.

In stark contrast to the intimidation taking place in Europe, American legislators have in recent weeks struck a decisive blow against the BDS campaign and those who seek to delegitimise Israel.

They are making it an offence for pension funds and savings institutions to boycott Israeli companies.

In effect, they are striking back against BDS with a boycott of the boycotters.

The first major blow against the boycotters was struck in the US state of Illinois, the home of President Obama and America's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.

The Senate and House of Representatives in Illinois both voted unanimously to pass laws that require five Illinois state-funded pension funds to identify all companies that boycott Israel and to sell any direct or indirect holdings in such enterprises.

The legislation that has been passed defines ''boycott'' as any company that engages in actions that are politically motivated or intended to penalise or inflict any harm on Israel or companies based there.

In the debates, it was noted that the move runs counter to the steps taken by some European pension funds to divest themselves of Israeli stocks. In January of 2014, the PGGM, the €189 billion asset manager which invests on behalf of Dutch healthcare workers, sold all of its shares in five Israeli banks arguing that they were involved in funding settlements in the disputed territories of the West Bank.

The Illinois legislation, which is being replicated in states across the union, reflects deep-seated political revulsion in the United States against the inflammatory BDS movement. In the US arena, BDS has sought to align itself with the American civil-rights movement arguing that it is acting on behalf of an oppressed minority.

That narrative has been rejected and instead the Americans increasingly see BDS as akin to the anti-Jewish boycotts so common in Europe in the period leading up to the Second World War. This robust view has been reinforced by the upsurge in recent antisemitic attacks in Europe including those on the Jewish Museum in Belgium, the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris and the murders at the Copenhagen Great Synagogue.

Fears about rampant European antisemitism are rife in the United States at present. They were directly referred to by the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, at the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation commemorations earlier this year.

It also featured as a theme at this year's meeting of the main pro-Israel lobby group held in Washington in March of this year.

The legislation being put into place at state level looks as if it will be replicated in the US Congress itself. Representative Doug Lambourn and seven co-sponsors have introduced the ''Boycott our Enemies, Not Israel Act.''

This is regarded as a more aggressive and potentially more effective way of boycotting the boycotters. It demands that any contractors doing work for the US government certify that they are not boycotting Israel. It also requires pension funds run by the US government to sell holdings in any companies that boycott Israel.

In the past, the US government has often used restrictions on contractors to reinforce government social actions. It has, for instance, required contractors to confirm that they have an "affirmative action" policy to ensure minority interests are protected. Paradoxically, this is precisely the arguments that BDS has tried to use in stigmatising companies that do business with the Jewish state.

The US already has legislation that criminalises firms that participate in the official Arab League boycott of Israel. The courts have upheld the constitutional validity of such measures.

The fightback of the American political system against boycotts of Israeli firms comes at a time when BDS has been gaining some traction on US university campuses - as it has done in Britain.

What is markedly different is the fightback, with almost no resistance, of the American political establishment, which despite some differences over Iran policy remains steadfastly on the side of Israel.

It finds boycotts anathema and hates the echoes of the 1930s. What a pity that political leaders in Europe and Britain do not take the same steadfast and robust attitude.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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