Boycotting Israel is wrong but this anti BDS bill is not the answer

The legislation aims to promote community cohesion but will pit British Jews against other groups


The phrase " Stop genocide against uyghurs " on a banner in men's hand. Human holds a cardboard with an inscription. Communism. Totalitarianism. Kill. Prison. Colonies. Control. Discrimination. Rights

June 22, 2023 11:45

No one likes a party pooper. No one cheers for the guy who insists on putting the champagne back in the fridge and the glasses back in the cupboard. So apologies for being that guy.

There will be plenty of JC readers, and certainly a good number of our communal leaders, who think this week has provided a rare cause for celebration. On Monday, the government introduced a bill that would, at last, make a move long sought by the official voices of the British Jewish community. The Economic Activity and Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill promises to make it illegal for local authorities — or any public body — to implement a policy of BDS. Put simply, they will be banned from imposing a boycott, divestment or sanctions on Israel. You can see why, for the likes of the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Leadership Council, that looks like a cue to uncork the bubbly.

Except it’s nothing of the kind. On the contrary, and as if to remind us that you should be careful what you wish for, this is a bad bill — bad for Britain and bad especially for British Jews, including those who adamantly oppose BDS and its campaign to ostracise Israel.
Start with why the bill is bad policy.

Early proof came with a letter from Uighur leaders, warning that it’s not just Israel-related BDS that is targeted by the legislation: the bill seeks to prevent local councils being “influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions”. If a local council wanted to take a stance on the detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims — and to refuse to buy a product that might profit the Chinese regime — they would be barred by law from doing so. As those Uighur exiles put it in a letter to Rishi Sunak, the anti-boycott law “risks undermining efforts to hold the Chinese government to account for their crimes”.

Remember, the Jewish community has been rightly vocal in its condemnation of Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs, with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis among those who have eloquently denounced the brutality of “re-education centres”, reportedly systematic sexual abuse and forced sterilisation. It would be bitterly ironic if this sledgehammer of a bill, supposedly designed to crack the nut of anti-Israel BDS, ends up hurting those who so many Jews have sought to help.

There is another irony too. Those of us who made the case against BDS always did so by arguing that the best way to bring change is through engagement and debate: don’t shun your opponents, talk to them. This bill takes the opposite approach, not seeking to persuade local authorities to abandon BDS through the power of argument but forcing them to do so, under threat of hefty fines. As the leaders of several committedly Zionist youth movements put it in a letter to the JLC and the Board, “Non-violent protest can be debated and opposed; it should not be banned.”

The bill is a clear gag on free speech. If another Russia invaded another Ukraine, this law would not only prevent a council from boycotting the invader, it would also bar a council from even saying that it would join a boycott if the law allowed it. That is obviously wrong in principle, especially in a country that claims to cherish free expression. But it also poses a particular risk for British Jews.

Even though it applies broadly, this bill is known as the BDS bill; ministers have framed it as an act of support for Israel. That means that when free speech advocates, civil liberties groups, climate campaigners and defenders of local democracy mobilise against this legislation — as they surely will — the mainstream Jewish community will find itself on the other side, associated with a crackdown that is widely opposed. The bill claims to promote “community cohesion”: in fact it will do the opposite, opening up new divisions at our expense. It’s one reason why the Union of Jewish Students — and, remember, it is students who are most often cited as needing protection from BDS campaigns — voted unanimously in March to oppose this new law, with one UJS activist warning that “it will pit Jews against other minorities and civil society activists in their fight for political and human rights”.

The drafting of the legislation makes things worse. It allows for ministers to make “certain exceptions” when a ban on boycotts would be patently absurd: the invasion of Ukraine is the obvious example. In that situation, a minister can carve out an exemption with a stroke of a pen. There’s only one exception to that rule; indeed only one country is named in the bill. Israel. It has special protection that can only be undone by an Act of Parliament.
What is a favourite refrain of the antisemites? That Israel is the one country you’re not “allowed” to criticise. This bill takes a canard and, in the case of boycotts, turns it into the law of the land.

Worse still, the bill goes out of its way to say that boycotts will be similarly illegal if they target not Israel proper but “the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. A local council that is perfectly happy with pre-1967 Israel, but wants to boycott goods from West Bank settlements — a position that is hardly outside the Zionist consensus in Israel itself — will be breaking UK law. No wonder all of Israel’s leading human rights organisations oppose this bill. It makes a deeply damaging error, conflating Israel with the occupied territories, erasing the distinction between the two, and, in effect, telling Britons disquieted by the occupation that if you dislike Kiryat Arba, then you dislike Tel Aviv: they’re the same thing.

Just think of what the last few months have brought. Mass demonstrations on the streets of Israel and around the world, as Israelis and diaspora Jews protest over Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to gut the judiciary.

Several major Israeli firms have already pulled their cash out of the country. If Netanyahu succeeds in his power grab, and others want to follow the lead set by those divesting Israeli companies, this bill would turn them into criminals. It makes no sense.

So this is a bad bill, an attempt by the Conservatives to pose as the Jews’ best friends after the angst of the Corbyn years. If it is meant as some kind of gift, we should not accept it. It’s not just wrong in principle — it spells big trouble.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

June 22, 2023 11:45

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