Palestine solidarity activists are readying themselves for a government assault on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. The Tory government wants to bring in laws that stop public sector bodies from boycotting Israeli companies and goods. Boris Johnson’s government touted the plan in its queen’s speech—where it outlined its goals—last year.
Now campaigners expect Rishi Sunak and his Tories to press ahead with the plans and introduce a bill to parliament soon. In the speech, the government said the bill would stop public sector bodies—such as councils—from “engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.” Some reports also say it will stop them from adopting boycott positions that don’t match up with British foreign policy. Though the speech didn’t mention it explicitly, supporters of Israel cheered this as a sign the government was going to clamp down on pro‑Palestine boycotts.
The Right to Boycott campaign—a wide-ranging group of charities, NGOs, campaigns and unions—said in a statement, “We are concerned that this would prevent public bodies from deciding not to invest in or procure from companies complicit in the violation of the rights of the Palestinian people. If passed, this law will stifle a wide range of campaigns concerned with the arms trade, climate justice, human rights, international law, and international solidarity with oppressed peoples struggling for justice.”
The bill goes further than restricting council money. It is intended to block activists’ ability to campaign in solidarity with Palestine. It’s part of a push to delegitimise Palestine solidarity, and opposition to Israel, by branding them as antisemitic. Politicians who champion anti-boycott laws often say that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is antisemitic on the grounds that Israel identifies as a Jewish state.
They want to present Israel as a state that represents all Jewish people, so boycotting it means holding all Jews responsible for Israel’s actions. But BDS doesn’t single Israel out because it is Jewish. It is a tactic designed to put pressure on Israel and draw attention to its crimes.
Activists around the world have taken it up because they’re responding to a call by Palestinian civil society organisations to boycott Israel in solidarity with them. Activists from Na’amod, which describes itself as an organisation of British Jews opposed to Israel’s occupation, have protested against the bill. Na’amod activist and organiser Imogen Philips said, “Palestinian freedom and Jewish safety are not mutually exclusive goals. We must fight antisemitism in tandem with dismantling Israeli occupation.”
The Tories have long wanted to clamp down on BDS. It’s a thorn in the side of the British government which, as part of its partnership with the US, looks to Israel to defend its interests in the Middle East. Since its launch, campaigners have pushed councils to adopt pro-BDS policies.
In Lancaster in 2021, councillors agreed to “condemn Israel’s breaches of international law and killing of Palestinians.” It also agreed that it would demand that Lancashire County Council’s pension fund withdraw investments in companies active in Israeli settlements and arms companies. The Tories want to make sure such a thing can never happen again.
The law might sound like a small measure. But—alongside new anti-strike and anti-protest laws—it’s part of a much broader assault on people’s right to resist, challenge, and fight back against the government. “From bus boycotts against racial segregation to divestment from fossil fuel companies to arms embargoes against apartheid, boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns have been applied throughout history,” the Right to Boycott campaign said.
Don’t hold out much hope that the Labour Party will stand up for the right to boycott Israel. Labour leader Keir Starmer has already said that Labour doesn’t support BDS as it targets “the world’s sole Jewish state.” Under the guise of rooting out antisemitism in Labour, he’s banned all of his MPs from issuing all but the mildest criticism against the Israeli government.
Last month he forced Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, to apologise in parliament after she called Israel an apartheid state. She was referring to a landmark report by the human rights organisation Amnesty International. It last year accused Israel of operating an apartheid regime against Palestinians.
Under orders from Starmer, Johnson apologised “unreservedly.” “I would also like to apologise for the use of the term ‘apartheid state’. While I was quoting accurately Amnesty’s description, I recognise this as insensitive and I’d like to withdraw it,” she said. It’s a lesson and a warning—while Labour’s leadership joins in on the BDS attacks, we can’t rely on its MPs to stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
The planned law in Britain follows in the footsteps of other similar bans around the world—and the US leads the way. Boycott, a documentary released last month, reveals the plethora of laws state governments have passed to clamp down on opposition to Israel.
“Between 2015 and 2021, 33 states in America passed legislation or executive orders punishing individuals or companies that boycott Israel,” it tells us. The laws have real consequences for people’s lives. Boycott tells the story of Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian‑American. She was sacked as a paediatric speech pathologist in Texas schools after refusing to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel.
Much of the documentary focuses on how the laws represent a threat to free speech and the US constitution. But it goes on to make the case for BDS itself. And it points to how a growing number of people in the US are confronted with Israel’s abuses of Palestinians and question the US’s support for it.
Bart Hester, the Republican leader of the Arkansas state senate, grins as he explains how he passed the law without opposition. “The Palestinian movement is not here educating the other side of the issue, and so no one heard the other side of the argument,” he says.
Bahia adds, “I have a lot of family members that still reside in the occupied territory. I’ve seen first-hand the injustice and inequality that goes on there. I could not stay quiet and just go on with my life while I know that this law is going to make it okay to continue this kind of oppression against the Palestinians.”
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