UK Parliament weighs anti-BDS bill as Jewish groups voice support

Parliament takes up bill which would fine cities and other public entities which take part in boycotts against Israel.

By Dion J. Pierre, The Algemeiner

The British Parliament is considering legislation that would ban public institutions — including universities and local government bodies — from participating in or endorsing the so-called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to isolate Israel from the international community as a step toward the Jewish state’s eventual elimination.

Proposed in June by Michael Gove — the British secretary of State for leveling up, housing, and communities — the “Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill” would levy fines on public entities that make “economic decisions” such as a boycott or disinvestment based on support for the BDS movement.

“The BDS campaign opposes efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to broker peace through a two-state solution, opposes cultural exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians, and fights against co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian universities,” Gove, a member of the Conservative Party, said in July when explaining the rationale for the bill.

“Where the BDS campaign has been adopted and endorsed there have, unfortunately, been real community-cohesion problems,” Gove added. “We have seen an increase in antisemitic events following on from the activities of the BDS movement, including supermarkets removing kosher products from their shelves following specific protests. The Community Security Trust has recently recorded the highest ever number of antisemitic incidents.”

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Hearings on the legislation were held this week by a committee of the House of Commons, with representatives of Jewish civil rights groups arguing in testimony for the measure’s necessity and importance in a time of rising antisemitism and hostility toward Israel — especially on UK college campuses.

“Israel is the only country that is regularly targeted for such boycotts via public bodies,” Daniel Sugarman, public affairs director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said during a sitting on Monday.

“[The bill] will certainly make things better for Jewish communities, particularly small Jewish communities who have been in positions where they sometimes feel that, unless they vocally criticize Israel, as Jews, they will not get a hearing. I do not have a huge amount of sympathy for people who might feel that they no longer have the means to make such Jewish communities feel uncomfortable.”

Other groups, however, have criticized the bill, arguing it would squelch free speech. On Wednesday, Yasmine Ahmed, director of the UK office of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the bill “is going to restrict … the ability of public bodies … to carry out their human rights due diligence responsibilities.”

“Something that is extremely pernicious from our perspective is that the bill will have a significant chilling effect on public bodies,” Ahmed added.

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HRW has long been accused of anti-Israel bias and double standards by US and Israeli officials and by American Jewish groups.

The UK government has already taken action against the BDS movement. In Feb. 2022, it passed a legislative amendment prohibiting local governments from divesting from public pension funds with Israel ties.

Proponents of the measure argued it would prevent local authorities from making decisions that conflict with UK foreign policy, adding that the foreign policy of some public pension funds was too focused on undermining British-Israeli relations.

Local government support for the BDS movement has been hotly debated in British politics for years, reaching an inflection point in 2014, when the Leicester City Council, governed by the Labour Party, passed a motion to boycott products made in Israeli settlements.

The Conservative Party has been promising to settle the issue since 2019, when its manifesto said that it would pursue a ban on public institutions “imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, divestment, or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.”

Legislation to that effect was announced in May 2022 as part of the Queen’s Speech, which was delivered by then-Prince Charles because Queen Elizabeth II, who died three months later, was unavailable for the occasion.

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The push for the legislation comes amid an active effort by the UK government to combat antisemitism on the country’s higher education campuses. According to a report issued by the Parliamentary Task Force on Antisemitism in Higher Education in June, many campuses are forcing members of the Jewish academic community to conceal their identities.

“We were told it was commonplace for Jewish students to choose not to wear certain clothing or jewelry around campus because it would make them visibly identifiable as Jewish,” the task force wrote in the report, noting that academic staff “also raised important comparable concerns about negativity surrounding their Jewish identity.”

Such behavior has influenced Jewish students’ choices on which courses to take, with one Newcastle University student reporting that they ruled out registering for a class on the Middle East out for fear of being held “responsible for defending Israel when discussing the conflict.” According to the task force report, at least one campus group for Jewish students, the Exeter Jewish Society of the University of Exeter, is phasing out any programming related to Israel altogether because it sets off a viscerally negative response from their anti-Zionist peers.