According to the Conservative MP Michael Gove, anyone involved in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel “is committing a crime worse than apartheid.” His remark was made in New York during a speech at the third annual gala celebrating the top 100 People “Positively Influencing Jewish Life” in 2015. Britain’s Secretary of State for Justice was honoured at the event hosted by Algemeiner, an American Jewish journal. Its top 100 included the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi along with other figures from the worlds of politics, academia, arts and literature, business, religion and philanthropy.
Gove is one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in Westminster, a hardliner even amongst the neo-conservative cabal. The MP for Surrey Heath gave his unconditional support for the invasion of Iraq and continues to defend the greatest foreign policy disaster of modern times. He is also a self-proclaimed expert on Muslim extremism with a unique method of dealing with radicalism, targeting the Muslim community indiscriminately in order to “drain the swamp”.
With a history of making outrageous statements, it is hard to believe that Gove has been lauded as one of the brightest sparks within the Conservative Party. Judging by the farce that turned out to be a “Trojan Hoax” during his stint as Education Secretary, some would say that his worldview leans more towards conspiracy theories instead of reality.
His disgraceful slur against the global BDS movement was made in a speech bemoaning anti-Semitism: “By calling for the deliberate boycott of goods manufactured by Jewish people, by calling for the shunning of the Jewish state, and the rejection of Jewish commerce and Jewish thought, actually commits a crime worse than apartheid.” The irony will be lost on him with his “Israel, right or wrong” approach, but Israel’s chief rabbi – recognised by Israeli law as the supreme rabbinic and spiritual authority for Judaism in the state — has just announced that non-Jews shouldn’t be allowed to live in Israel.
Gove’s remark also coincided with a call by an Israeli minister for the “civil targeted killings” of BDS leaders. “There is no difference between Omar Barghouti, Hassan Nasrallah, Ayatollah Khamenei… or even Adolf Hitler,” Yisrael Katz told a conference on how to tackle BDS.
With real life assassinations carried out with sickening regularity by Israeli soldiers, “civil targeted killings” looks like code for murder, using the most base and hateful form of dog whistle politics. Such poisonous rhetoric is expected from a paranoid mind harbouring a profound persecution complex while holding down a bizarre combination of portfolios — Katz is not only Minister of Transportation but also Intelligence and Atomic Energy — but is hardly expected of a British secretary of state.
It’s no surprise, though, that the quintessential ideologue Michael Gove has found himself on the side of Israeli ministers like Katz. He may not be calling for “civil assassination” of BDS members but he is nonetheless guilty of belittling the crime of apartheid and intentionally misrepresenting BDS in the process.
The call for BDS has its roots in the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on Israel’s “Separation (aka Apartheid) Wall”. In its landmark 2004 decision, the ICJ provided one of the most important legal opinions on the question of Palestine and peace and security in the Middle East. It called on member states not to recognise the wall nor provide aid or assistance to maintain the circumstances created by its construction; prevent any impediment, created by the wall’s construction, to the exercise of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; and ensure Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law. It called on the UN to consider what further action was needed to end the illegal situation caused by the wall’s construction.
Equally significant was the “road map” for a comprehensive solution wherein the ICJ reiterated the need to establish an independent Palestinian state; reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; demanded the end of Israeli occupation; and demanded the cessation of the construction of colonies across the occupied Palestinian territories. It further stated that the annexation of territory by force breached international law and called on Israel to provide remedies to Palestinians whose basic rights have been violated by the construction of the wall and its associated regime.
Crucially, the ICJ advisory opinion, possibly in anticipation of member states’ failure to implement it, empowered Palestinian and international civil society to take up the baton by transforming the legal ruling into an effective tool for ending the conflict. With such an unequivocal statement from the ICJ, it is still a surprise that crowds of people have not yet congregated in front of the illegal wall with the court ruling in one hand and a sledge hammer in the other to enforce its terms.
Nevertheless, in 2005, Palestinian civil society came together to call formally for international civil society organisations and “people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, just as they had been against South Africa during Apartheid.”
Palestinian academics and intellectuals urged colleagues in the international community to boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions comprehensively and consistently as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel's occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid.
What Britain’s Justice Secretary believes to be a crime is in fact civil — and entirely peaceful — action endorsed by the International Court of Justice. Yet more irony.
The ICJ ruling should, at the very least, have provided moral and legal clarity on the question of Palestine and a framework for peace. Instead, it has been traduced by the likes of Michael Gove, who has opted to maintain his unflinching and unquestioning support for Zionism at the expense of international laws and conventions; his contemptible remarks will make even the most skilled Israeli propagandists very proud.
While it is perfectly legitimate to hold divergent views about the effectiveness of BDS as a strategy for ending Israel’s brutal occupation, it is absolutely absurd to suggest that the campaign is targeting Jews. As one disillusioned Zionist maintains, criticising Israel and Zionism is not anti-Semitism, nor is holding Israel to account for its many and constant breaches of international law. Increasing numbers of Jewish activists would agree.
If Michael Gove really understands the meaning of justice, he must know that BDS is not a crime. If he is serious about ending Israel’s occupation — and this is doubtful — then he should pay closer attention to the “road map” recommended by the ICJ and support the Palestinians’ right to resist Israel’s illegal occupation using non-violent means.
The lessons from history could not be clearer. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” said US President John F Kennedy in 1962. Through their endless attacks on the peaceful BDS campaign, Gove and his Israeli friends seem to be absolutely determined to make a peaceful revolution impossible.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.