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newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Anti-BDS bill advances in House of Commons

The question for every member is whether they stand against antisemitism or not, said Michael Gove, the British bill’s sponsor.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-U.K. Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove in Jerusalem, April 20, 2021. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-U.K. Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove in Jerusalem, April 20, 2021. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Britain’s House of Commons passed in its second reading a bill that would bar public bodies from boycotting foreign states that the UK government hasn’t sanctioned.

The measure passed by 268 votes to 70 in the 650-member House.

The legislation now goes to a parliamentary committee, which will “scrutinize the bill line by line,” with a report expected by Sept. 14. If it passes a third reading in the full parliament, it will go to the House of Lords, which could propose amendments or delay the measure.

According to Bill 325, the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, “The decision-maker must not have regard to a territorial consideration in a way that would cause a reasonable observer of the decision-making process to conclude that the decision was influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct.”

It specifically identifies “Israel” and what it calls “the occupied Palestinian territories” and “the occupied Golan Heights” as entities that the secretary of state (when used in legislation, this means “one of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State”—R.L.) and the minister for the Cabinet Office cannot cite as exceptions.

Michael Gove, the British secretary of state for leveling up, housing and communities and the intergovernmental relations minister, sponsored the bill. He told parliamentarians that antisemitic language, which groups that boycott Israel (BDS) use, is a concern. 

“Critically, it provides protection for minority communities, especially the Jewish community, against campaigns that harm community cohesion and fuel antisemitism,” Gove said of the bill.

“Antisemitism” was mentioned some 115 times, and “Israel” nearly 300 times during the discussion regarding the legislation’s second reading.

BDS as antisemitism

Stephen Crabb, a member of Parliament and chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, said, “Is not the reason every single Conservative member stood on a manifesto commitment to bring forward such legislation that we understand that there is something fundamentally illiberal, leftist and with deep, ugly connections to antisemitism at the heart of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? That is what we are trying to tackle today.”

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.

“The question for every member of this House is whether they stand with us against antisemitism or not,” Gove said.

“The BDS movement deliberately asks public bodies to treat Israel differently from any other nation on the globe,” he continued.

“It asks them to treat the Middle East’s only democracy as a pariah state and to end links with those who have a commercial presence there,” he said. “Let me be clear: There are legitimate reasons to criticize the Israeli government, to question their policy and, if individuals so wish, to repudiate their leadership, as there are with many other countries.

“Nothing in the bill prevents or impedes the loudest of criticisms of Israel’s government and leaders, including by elected politicians at all levels of government,” Gove said.

Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of the International Legal Forum, a network of lawyers, told JNS that the British government, which was the first to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s Working Definition of Antisemitism, in December 2016, should be commended for fighting the BDS movement.

“Local bodies such as municipalities should be concerned with garbage collection and paving roads, not setting foreign policy and engaging in racist actions like boycotting the world’s only Jewish state,” he said. 

Ostrovsky added that it is “unfathomable” that British “taxpayer funds should be used to underwrite illegal boycotts of Israel and fan the flames of antisemitism, which is already at alarmingly high levels in the U.K.”

Jonny Gould, an analyst on U.K.-Israel relations and host of an eponymous podcast, told JNS that he welcomes the bill’s passage.

“The central government must remain sovereign over local councils when it comes to foreign policy,” he said. “Let’s not forget this is also about the overreaching language of BDS supporters, which all too often strays into antisemitism.”

Bilateral ties between Israel and the U.K. have strengthened significantly in recent years. Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reiterated his support for Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism as the IDF embarked on a two-day counterterror operation in Jenin.

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