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Boycott bill: Campaigners call out UK government for conflating BDS with antisemitism

Pro-Palestine groups say attack on BDS movement displays 'double standard' because of government's support for measures against Russia over Ukraine invasion
Free Palestine protesters join a People's Assembly National Demonstration under the banner 'United against this corrupt government', at Portland Square in central London on 26 June 2021 (AFP)

Campaigners have called out the UK government for linking boycotts of Israel to antisemitism in a statement announcing its plans to ban local councils and other public bodies from backing such boycotts.

Presented to parliament on Monday, the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill would prohibit procurement and investment decisions made by public bodies "influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct", such as those encouraged by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In a statement, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which introduced the bill, said that boycotts of Israel by public bodies had led to community tensions and a rise in antisemitism.

Communities minister Michael Gove said: "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."

The government statement also included comments from Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said the bill would "directly hinder the unnecessary and inappropriate targeting of Israel by local authorities and other public institutions". 

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Speaking to Middle East Eye, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Britain's largest pro-Palestine group, condemned attempts to conflate boycotts of Israel with antisemitism. 

"The government seeks to advance the fallacious argument that this campaign is inherently antisemitic or fosters antisemitism. Such rhetoric creates a false and dangerous equivalence between Jewish people and the policies of the state of Israel, with the effect of silencing advocates for human rights and justice," said Ben Jamal, who heads the PSC.  

"It also treats Palestinians by a different standard to any other people calling for boycott or divestment to uphold their rights, accusing them uniquely of holding an underlying racist motivation."

'Double standard'

Ismail Patel, who runs the Friends of Al-Aqsa group, described the government's attempt to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism as an attempt to create a "shield for Israel".

"The government's statement clearly shows that the aim of the 'anti-BDS bill' is to associate BDS with antisemitism," said Patel. 

'Nobody suggests Ukrainians might be motivated by an inherent hatred of all Russian people when they call for action to hold Russia to account for its illegal occupation'

- Ben Jamal, PSC

"This provides a shield for Israel to continue its colonisation and human rights abuses. Identifying and combatting antisemitism is important. There is no room for racism of any kind in the movement for a free Palestine." 

Jamal also called out the British government's "double standard" over its handling of Israel - despite supporting sanctions and divestment campaigns against Russia over its war in Ukraine.

"Nobody suggests that Ukrainians might be motivated by an inherent hatred of all Russian people when they call for action to hold Russia to account for its illegal occupation of their land," said Jamal.

"This double standard is reinforced by an extraordinary section in the bill, a clause which outlines a special exception for Israel, granting it immunity from accountability not granted to any other state in the world."

The BDS movement aims to end international support for Israel's "systematic oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law".

Called for by more than 170 Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, the movement has grown and spread worldwide.

It describes itself as an "inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia".

Defeated in Supreme Court twice

In last year's Queen's Speech, in which the government announces its programme for government, it said it would fulfil a commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019 that it planned to schedule an anti-boycott bill that would stop public bodies from passing legislation to boycott Israeli-made products.

Last year, the UK parliament voted in favour of an amendment banning public sector employees from boycotting Israeli investments within their pension pots. 

In 2016, the UK government attempted to introduce guidance to prevent the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) from being able to divest from companies on ethical grounds. 

But PSC won an initial court victory against that guidance in 2017. The government appealed and PSC won a second time in 2020 in a case that went to the Supreme Court. Having been defeated in court, the government is now trying to introduce that guidance through primary legislation. 

While the bill was presented to the House of Commons on Monday, it is still subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the Commons, the House of Lords and at the committee stage, which means it could face amendments before becoming law.

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