MPs welcome Michael Gove's BDS bill banning councils from Israeli boycotts

The proposed legislation 'marks a major step in the battle against the pernicious BDS movement'


A tourist photographs a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on June 5, 2015, calling to boycott Israeli products coming from Jewish settlements. The international BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign, that pushes for a ban on Israeli products, aims to exert political and economic pressure over Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories in a bid to repeat the success of the campaign which ended apartheid in South Africa. AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

Councils, universities and other public bodies could face huge fines if they try to boycott Israel, according an anti-BDS bill unveiled by Michael Gove on Monday evening.

Both the Treasury and ministers in Gove’s Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities would have sweeping powers to levy fines against bodies that failed to comply with the proposed legislation.

Members of the public would also have the ability to challenge public bodies’ decisions in the High Court.

The bill, which was promised in the 2019 Tory manifesto, has explicitly been designed to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international pro-Palestinian campaign that lobbies to get academic, cultural and economic boycotts of Israel adopted and enforced.

If it passes into law, public bodies such as local councils will be barred from making any “economic decision” when procuring goods and services or making an investment, if the decision can be shown to be “influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states”.

The bill does not specify the maximum penalties public bodies could face for flouting the law, with the figure due to be announced by Gove in the coming months.

After presenting the Bill in the Commons, Gove said in a statement: “It is simply wrong that public bodies have been wasting taxpayers’ time and money pursuing their own foreign policy agenda. The UK must have a consistent approach to foreign policy, set by UK Government.

"These campaigns not only undermine the UK’s foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse. That is why we have taken this decisive action to stop these disruptive policies once and for all.

“My message to these organisations, is to get on with your job and focus on delivering for the public.”

Although attempted boycotts of Israel and the Occupied Territories inspired the bill and are mentioned in it, the law would apply to attempts to boycott other countries too, such as China – a move which reportedly has dismayed members of China’s Uyghur minority.

However, it would not cover public bodies’ pension schemes, decisions by the security and intelligence services, defence contracts, and issues affecting national security.

The bill was warmly welcomed by leading Jewish organisations.

President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl said: “We are pleased to support the Government’s endeavours in the [bill] which will directly hinder the unnecessary and inappropriate targeting of Israel by local authorities and other public institutions.

“We appreciate how the government is working to prevent these organisations from setting their own foreign policy, which all too often creates a deeply divisive local situation as well as being deeply unsettling to local Jewish communities.”

Russell Langer, head of policy and research at the Jewish Leadership Council, also hailed the proposed legislation.

“Public bodies, especially local authorities, should actively support measures which enable community cohesion and oppose those who seek to undermine this," Langer told the JC.

"We therefore support the principle of the bill which will prevent public bodies from setting their own foreign policy through boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns and importing conflicts into communities which risk increasing levels of antisemitism."

Stephen Crabb, the parliamentary chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, described the bill as a piece of “landmark legislation” that marked “a major step in the battle against the pernicious BDS movement".

He added: "I applaud the government for its decisiveness in stopping the abuse of public bodies and public funds for divisive anti-Israel activity and hope to see it progress swiftly through parliament.”

Meanwhile, Labour Friends of Israel director Michael Rubin said: “BDS damages communal relations and fosters antisemitism at home, while doing nothing to further the cause of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Public bodies should not be singling out the world's only Jewish state for boycotts."

However, in an article published by Jewish News, the leaders of four Jewish youth organisations claimed the bill would “limit our civil liberties” and “limit our ability” to campaign on other issues such as climate change and global poverty.

Left-wing Israeli organisations also expressed concern. A letter signed by 14 groups including Peace Now and Combatants for Peace said the law would “make it extremely difficult for the occupied Palestinian territories to be recognised and treated differently to Israel proper, despite the UK government recognising the illegality of settlements, and commitments it has previously made to distinguish between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories”.

The groups said they were not themselves in favour of BDS, but believed that campaigning for boycotts was a legitimate exercise of free speech.

Leicester City Council began boycotting goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank after passing a motion in 2014, while Lancaster City Council passed motions in support of such campaigns in 2021.

In 2018, a legal bid from Jewish Human Rights Watch challenging Leicester City Council's boycott was dismissed by the Court of Appeal.

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