Among the announcements made by the Conservative party over the course of their annual party conference this week was news of an unprecedented attack on the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
The government intends to change pension and procurement rules, in order to prevent local councils from adopting increasingly popular boycott and divestment initiatives. The step is being taken specifically to shield companies complicit in Israeli occupation, as well as the British arms trade.
Warning of the “militant actions of left-wing councils”, and in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest, the Tories’ plans represent one of the most serious efforts yet to fight the growing BDS campaign in Britain. It comes at a time when UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) recently recruited a full-time Director of Operations, a position advertised with a salary of £40-50,000.
The Conservative press release announcing the planned changes to legislation read in parts like it had been copied and pasted from past statements by the likes of the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Israeli embassy, with its claims that boycotting companies complicit in human rights violations serves to “polarise debate” and “inflame tensions” in local communities.
As evidence of the growing Israel boycott, the Tories’ have pointed to steps taken in recent years by Leicester City Council, Nottingham City Council, Scottish councils, and three trade unions: UNISON, Unite, and GMB. They also highlighted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s track record of support for Palestinian rights, noting he is a patron of “the Palestine Solidarity Campaign radical fringe group” (a turn of phrase, interestingly, normally used by The Jerusalem Post).
Responding, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) chair Hugh Lanning described the “proposals to restrict ethical decision-making at a local level” as “an authoritarian response to the amazing growth in the UK of a movement for peace and justice for Palestine.”
Lanning added that “forcing councils to put big business interests ahead of ethics and international law is not only risky and bad business practice, it is a gross interference in local democracy and entirely unjust.” PSC also pointed out that the Conservatives’ proposed measures run counter to current UK Government advice against doing business with Israeli settlements.
Anti-poverty charity War on Want also slammed the new policy of “banning local councils from making ethical investment choices” as “completely anti-democratic and a callous move to clamp down on the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to end UK complicity in Israeli violations of international law.”
The use of legal measures to fight BDS is not new, or unique to Britain. In France, for example, BDS campaigners face legal action under an obscure application of a piece of anti-discrimination legislation, with four activists facing a December court date in Toulouse, accused of impeding the free practice of trade.
Last week, during a short speaking tour I conducted, the President of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès cancelled my lecture with less than 24 hours’ notice and with no reason given. In the end, the talk took place, but in another room on campus. Back in March, the city of Toulouse banned a lecture by South African academic and activist Farid Escak.
According to Toulouse-based BDS activist Jean-Pierre Bouché, and one of those due in court in two months, there is “an increasing number of attempts to prevent the expression of the BDS campaign, from the cancellation of authorisations to use municipal halls to the prosecution of four BDS campaigners for the reason that they were distributing leaflets.”
In the USA, meanwhile, recent reports have documented how Palestinian human rights advocates are routinely targeted for intimidation, harassment, and attacks on their freedom of speech. At the University of California, authorities are under pressure by pro-Israel groups and politicians to adopt a definition of antisemitism that could have a chilling effect on legitimate political speech.
Pro-Israel groups – including a key role played by Christian Zionist activists – are also pursuing legislation in state senates across the U.S. that at a bare minimum serves to intimidate BDS campaigners – and could potentially lead to the “criminalization of advocating for Palestinian rights and against occupation.”
Earlier this year, Shurat HaDin, an organisation with links to Israel’s government and security services, held a seminar in Jerusalem “to train lawyers from abroad to litigate BDS.” Dozens of lawyers attended from around the world, with organisers hoping to “equip” them with “the tactical tools and broader courtroom strategies they need” to fight BDS.
The new plans by the British government to use legislation as a means of fighting BDS is thus part of both a broader anti-democratic offensive domestically, and an international trend where pro-Israel advocates are increasingly seeing lawfare strategies as their only option to try and stem the tide of Palestine solidarity activism. The response to these tactics will need to be similarly well-coordinated.