A government bill to outlaw boycotts of Israel received its second reading this week in the Commons.
The bill prevents local councils and other publicly funded bodies from “pursuing their own foreign policy agendas” by using procurement or investment deals “to indicate disapproval of a foreign state”.
While it provides for exceptions to this ban, it states that no boycotts of Israel will be permitted.
This is because, said the Communities Secretary Michael Gove, an “existing, organised and malign campaign” is trying “to persuade public bodies to make commercial decisions solely on the basis of harming that state and its people”. This campaign, he added, also “leads directly” to antisemitic incidents and a loss of community cohesion.
The aim of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy, as acknowledged by its originator Omar Barghouti, is to exterminate the State of Israel altogether.
One might therefore think that, in any decent political universe, banning Israel boycotts would be axiomatic. But of course, this isn’t a decent political universe.
Ministers have criticised two councils in particular — Leicester and Lancaster — for boycotting Israeli goods. Similar boycotts have been promoted by various academic institutions.
This is part of the obsessive animus against Israel that’s the default in “progressive” circles. As a result, the anti-boycott bill was always bound to be deeply divisive.
In the second reading vote, Labour abstained, as did more than 80 Conservatives, with two Tories voting against. Labour has said that if the bill isn’t amended according to its wishes, it will finally vote against it.
The opposition to the bill is deeply disingenuous. Critics say that it’s so wide-ranging, it will prevent boycotts of places like China or Russia. Yet exemptions would permit boycotts of those countries.
Labour’s communities spokesman, Lisa Nandy, has been careful to say the party opposes BDS. But her reasoning is weaselly. BDS, she says, “offers no meaningful route to peace for Palestinians or Israelis” and provides cover “for whipping up hostility towards the Jewish people”.
But surely the main objection to BDS is that it is unconscionable to demonise Israel through libellous falsehoods with the aim of destroying it.
Not once, though, did any of these critics acknowledge the malevolent use of such falsehoods against Israel, nor the BDS strategy of annihilation.
Instead, several echoed the claim made by Richard Hermer KC, the Labour party’s adviser on the bill, that it “effectively equates the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories) with Israel itself” and was “very difficult to reconcile” with Britain’s support for a “two-state solution”.
This was nonsensical. The bill makes no such equation. It merely outlaws boycotts of Israel for any reason, including its activities in the disputed territories or on the Golan Heights.
It therefore seems that Labour opposes boycotts of Israel only over its activities inside what Labour has decided is legitimate Israeli territory. Since the boycotters’ principal target is Israel’s activities in the disputed territories, Labour’s professed opposition to BDS is worthless.
Last May, Hermer was a signatory to a letter to the Foreign Secretary from Lawyers for Human Rights in Palestine. This claimed that, since 1967, Israel had worked to thwart a Palestinian state by “altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of discriminatory legislation and measures”.
It also suggested that the Israeli government was working towards a situation which would “amount to apartheid”. These venomously distorted and untrue claims were straight out of the BDS playbook.
Strikingly, in the Commons Hermer was called out for his pro-Palestinian sympathies, with Gove stating that Labour’s “flawed” legal advice came from “someone who has a clear political record of partiality on this question”.
No less stomach-turning was the handwringing concern that the bill would promote antisemitism. Dame Margaret Hodge, known for her unremitting attacks on Israeli policies but who declared herself to be a “proud Zionist”, said the bill “plays into the hands of antisemites” by singling out Israel “as the one place that can never be boycotted”.
This was beyond perverse. Israel is the one place in the world that’s singled out for destruction by using the boycott weapon.
The claim that the bill will foment antisemitism echoes those in the Jewish community who say any robust defence of Israel foments antisemitism. What Hodge and her ilk are actually doing is weaponising antisemitism against Israel.
This despicable stance by Jewish “progressives” was put to shame by Tory MP Stephen Crabb who told the Commons: “There is something fundamentally illiberal, leftist and with deep, ugly connections to antisemitism at the heart of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement”.
The bill isn’t perfect and may well benefit from amendment. Its usefulness, however, lies as a marker of Britain’s condign disapproval of BDS. Opposition to it will flush out those with poisonous anti-Israel views.
The number of Tories opposed to it is dismaying. As for Labour, Britain’s Jewish community leadership seems to think it’s safe to support the party once again because its inner viper of Israel-bashing Jew-hatred has been decapitated.
Such a judgment would appear to be distinctly premature.
Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist