David Rose

When it comes to BDS, there's a binary choice to be made

Sometimes in politics, the divide between competing visions is so binary and cuts so deep that compromise is almost impossible


Demonstrators hold a placard urging the international community to take action against Israel's settlement policy in the occupied territories as left-wing Israeli and foreign peace activists join Palestinians in a protest in the Arab east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on November 04, 2009. According to Israeli radio, about 200 people protestested in Sheikh Jarrah against what they call the "Judaisation" of Arab east Jerusalem and the ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the Jerusalem area. BDS is a campaign calling for "boycott, deinvestment and sanctions" against Israel. AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images)

September 08, 2023 15:40

Of course, there are Jews who wish Israel did not exist and deny its right to do so, arrayed on a spectrum that runs from the ultra-Orthodox Neuterei Karta sect to Jeremy Corbyn’s apologists in Jewish Voice for Labour. Most of us, however, disagree, and in so doing we should accept an important proposition: that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is Israel’s sworn enemy, whose ultimate goal is to destroy it. Omar Barghouti, BDS’s co-founder and leading ideologist, has made this crystal clear. He argues that Israel is “a racist, colonial, ethnocentric, apartheid state”, and demands a “one-state solution, where, by definition, Jews will be in a minority”.

Sometimes in politics, the divide between competing visions is so binary and cuts so deep that compromise is almost impossible.

As Levelling-Up secretary Michael Gove pointed out in the Commons in July, the BDS national committee includes members of the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, a coalition that embraces the terror groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

All these groups are proscribed in Britain under the Terrorism Act 2000, which means it is a criminal offence to belong to or support them. So far as I’m aware, the argument that this constitutes a violation of the right to free speech is not often made, at least not by figures anywhere close to the political mainstream (though it will be recalled that infamously, Corbyn once referred to “our friends” from Hamas and another terror group, the Iranian regime proxy Hezbollah).

Now, however, it is being made in relation to BDS – and in some cases, by Jews.

Gove’s Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill embodies a 2019 election manifesto promise, and would make it unlawful for publicly-funded bodies such as councils to make “economic decisions” on the basis of boycott campaigns such as BDS. It would also prohibit them from expressing support for such boycotts as institutions, although their members could continue to think and speak as they liked as individuals.

Speaking as a council taxpayer, I don’t much want my local authority passing motions to endorse a campaign coordinated by terrorists whose aim is the annihilation of the Jewish state. In fact, I don’t much want it developing a foreign policy independent of the UK government at all, and when councils have tried to do so in the past, the results have not been pretty.

Last year, I reported on the case of Pendle council in Lancashire. When it held a debate that led to its decision to fly the Palestinian flag from the town hall roof in the week of the late Queen’s platinum jubilee, its Labour group leader Mohammed Iqbal made a speech that compared Israel to Nazi Germany and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He denied his remarks were antisemitic, but his party suspended his membership, and an investigation is ongoing.

This week, Gove’s Bill began its committee stage, with evidence given by a diverse set of witnesses. Britain’s two main national Jewish organisations, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, said they strongly supported it. But the left-wing Yachad demurred – partly, its director Hannah Weisfeld said, because “our sense is that the Bill will severely limit freedom of speech”.

She went further. In her view, “I would not be overstating the reality if I said that if this legislation passes in its current form, there will be BDS motions in public bodies all across the country where people try to test this legislation because they are so frustrated that their right to expr an opinion has been clamped down on”. This, she went on, would encourage “a nasty debate around Israel-Palestine, and I do not think that that is going to benefit the Jewish community particularly”.

Or to put it another way: trying to prevent councils from passing motions that give rise to antisemitism will foster… antisemitism.

Yachad, Weisfeld said, did not itself support BDS. However, “we support the rights of individuals to adopt methods of non-violent resistance to Israeli government policy—and in fact to the policy of any government anywhere in the world”.

Weisfeld also objected to another section of the Bill – which states that while boycotts on some countries could, in certain circumstances, be lawful - those triggered by evidence that a state was enslaving its subjects, for example, or devastating the natural environment – boycotts of Israel, uniquely among the world’s nations, never could. This, she said, was “a gift to the Benjamin Netanyahu government”, of which a large majority of British Jews disapproved. According to Weisfeld, it meant that “despite the fact that there are now Israelis divesting and dissolving companies and moving them outside Israel, there can never be any circumstances in which it is OK for public bodies in Britain to do that”.

One could argue that granting a unique degree of protection against boycotts of Israel is justified by the fact that in many quarters, Israel is uniquely vilified, and judged by standards that are never applied anywhere else – often, as the JC’s editor Jake Wallis Simons shows in his new book, Israelophobia, as an outgrowth of antisemitism.

Moreover, as Gove told the Commons in July, “the BDS movement deliberately asks public bodies to treat Israel differently from any other nation on the globe. It asks them to treat the Middle East’s only democracy as a pariah state.” There might be legitimate reasons to criticise the Israeli government, but the BDS movement was not a campaign to shift Israeli policy but “to erase Israel’s identity as a home for the Jewish people”.

However, there is a broader point. Next month, the committee scrutinising the Bill will reconvene. There will be scope for amendments, and arguably, the clause that would permanently protect Israel, whatever might happen in some hypothetical future, should be removed.

But this is no reason to oppose the Bill in its entirety, as Labour is virtually certain to do. Ultimately, as I suggested above, this is a binary question. Do you want a campaign supported by terror groups devoted to Israel’s destruction to influence institutions funded by taxpayers, or not?

September 08, 2023 15:40

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