John McDonnell brands Israel an apartheid state in speech against BDS ban
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John McDonnell brands Israel an apartheid state in speech against BDS ban

Former shadow chancellor outlines fierce opposition to amendment put forward by Robert Jenrick seeking to ban boycotts of Israel in public pension funds, which was backed by MPs

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Labour's former shadow chancellor John McDonnell 

Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Labour's former shadow chancellor John McDonnell Danny Lawson/PA Wire

John McDonnell, the former Labour shadow chancellor, labelled Israel an “apartheid state” in the House of Commons as he outlined his opposition to moves to ban BDS in public pension funds.

The backbench MP spoke out after Tory parliamentarian Robert Jenrick had slammed what he described as the “selective” targeting of the state of Israel by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Jenrick had earlier tabled an amendment to the Public Service Pensions Bill which demanded that administrators of public sector pension schemes “may not make investment decisions that conflict with the UK’s foreign and defence policy”.

MPs later backed the move – with 299 voting in favour the amendment and 81 parliamentarians, mainly from the SNP, Labour left and the Liberal Democrats, opposing.

McDonnell suggested it was important for individuals to express a view on countries they did not want their pensions being invested in on “moral grounds.”

Explaining his own experience with his pension McDonnell said:”On moral grounds I have argued, so far unsuccessfully within my own pension scheme.I have argued very strongly I don’t want the money I’ve earned, my earned income, I don’t want to invest in a number of states.

“They have included Saudi Arabia because of their involvement in Yemen, in fact I organised demonstrations when there were visits from representatives from Saudi Arabia in this country.

“In China because of the Uyghurs .. also on moral grounds a number trade union friends are in prison as result of operations by the Chinese state in Hong Kong.

“In Columbia… and also against investments going into Israel as I do believe according to the Amnesty Report, the Human Rights report and many Jewish institutions as as well that actually it is an apartheid state the way they treat the Palestinians.”

McDonnell added “that’s my position on moral grounds, I want to be able to influence investments. I believe that is my right.”

The Labour MP was supported in his attack on measures to counterthe impact of BDS on public pensions by Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South.

She raised noted how in the 1980s local authorities had opposed investment in South Africa’s Apartheid regime, while Tory MPs were “wearing badges”calling for the hanging of NelsonMandela.

Sultana then noted “British made weapons are integral to the Saudi war in Yemen.”

She then said the “similarly if local authorities wishes to alignthemselves with international law and divest from companies operating in illegally occupied Palestinian lands, this amendment would risk denying them that right too.”

In a further intervention, the Brighton MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle reminded MPs that both the Israeli Labour Party and Meretz had, he recalled, written to the Labour leadership in the UK saying they backed divestment from companies that had invested in “occupied territories”.

Speaking for the Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said her party would not be supporting Jenrick’s amendment “not because of BDS” but because of “wider implications” in areas where atrocities may be taking place.

Speaking earlier in the House of Commons on Tuesday, former Communities Secretary Jenrick posed the question to MPs; “Why is Israel held to a higher standard than every other country in the world?”

He claimed:”All too often the foreign policy of these public pension schemes is almost exclusively focused on rewriting the UK’s relationship with the world’s only Jewish state, Israel.

“The latest example of the politicisation of public pension schemes is by Wirral Council who are currently considering realising almost £5 million with investments in Israeli companies.

“This pet project of a small minority who seem to hijack the money of hard-working tax-payers for their own political ends is of no interest to the public pension scheme holders of Wirral.

“As indeed I would suggest to the public pension scheme holders and rate payers of Hertfordshire.”

Jenrick said this politicisation of the schemes was to the “detriment” of the UK’s relationship with foreign states.

The Newark MP said it “shouldn’t be assumed that someone expressing support for the Palestinians is antisemitic.”

He said “many are genuinely moved by the cause of Palestinian statehood.”

But Jenrick then said:”You don’t have to look very hard to find antisemitic behaviour in connection with campaigns promoting boycotts of Israel.”

He said “successive studies” had shown the link between BDS activity and anti-Jewish hostility.

Jenrick then highlighted what he said was the “ethical inconsistency” within the BDS movement.

He said:”Why does the concern for humanity, particularly the welfare of Muslims, expire at the Jordan river?

“The BDS movement are mute on neighbouring Jordan or Lebanon where the Palestinian minority really are second class citizens -and fell silent when thousands of Palestinians were killed at the hands of the murderous Assad regime.

“There has been no call for a boycott of ICICI bank in response to the egregious abuses against Muslims in India.”

Andrew Percy, the MP for Brigg and Goole, was amongst those to praise Jenrick’s speech and he suggesting Labour activists were “endorsing an antisemitic campaign.”

Minister Simon Clarke said the government would accept the amendment which has “everything to do with BDS.”

Commenting on the successful vote on the Jenrick amendment within the Public Service Pensions & Judicial Offices Bill, Claudia Mendoza, Co-CEO of the JLC said:“We welcome the decision today to put an end to attempts to politicise the decision making process of public sector pension funds’ investments in Israel. We thank Robert Jenrick for bringing forward the amendment and the government for supporting it. Councils should be focusing on community cohesion and not stoking division by importing of a foreign conflict through BDS.”

Meanwhile, it was announced that Robert Jenrick is set to assume the position of co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which provides the Secretariat for the APPG, confirmed that it had asked Jenrick, the Conservative MP for Newark, to consider becoming co-Chair of the group, alongside Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking.

Mr Jenrick said: “I am extremely pleased to have been approached by the Board of Deputies regarding the possibility of assuming the position of co-chair of the APPG on British Jews. The British Jewish community is very close to my heart, and I look forward to working with Dame Margaret Hodge MP and all other members of the APPG to ensure that issues of importance to British Jews are properly addressed.”

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