OPINION: Laws to stop BDS activity by local councils is essential

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OPINION: Laws to stop BDS activity by local councils is essential

MPs must vote to secure government action stopping councils dabbling in Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, writes We Believe in Israel's Luke Akehurst.

BDS protest 2019
BDS protest 2019

Since ‘We Believe in Israel’ was founded in 2011, one of our top priorities has been to combat moves towards BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) in local authorities in the UK.

We launched a local ‘Government Friends of Israel’ network, which more than 700 councillors of all parties have signed up to; we’ve campaigned with a coalition of other organisations successfully against divestment attempts in specific councils like Wirral; and we’ve taken more than 60 councillors on their first visits to Israel as part of our programme of study tours, so they can see the reality of the country for themselves.

But our end objective has been to secure government action to stop councils dabbling in BDS.

Luke Akehurst

This has also been a key priority for the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council. An initial effort to do this via secondary legislation and guidance was thwarted by a Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) court case, leaving the government no alternative but primary legislation.

We therefore welcome the government’s proposed bill to end the ability of public sector bodies to carry out boycotts and divestment –

We are against BDS more widely, because it deepens the divisions in the Middle East conflict rather than encouraging dialogue and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. BDS demonises and delegitimises Israel by reusing a tactic made famous in the superb global campaign to rid South Africa of its racist apartheid* regime to imply, completely falsely, that Israel is morally comparable to apartheid.

Luke Akehurst (centre) leads a We Believe In Israel rally

We are specifically concerned about councils engaging in BDS because it cuts straight across their duty to promote community cohesion. Taking sides in a divisive foreign policy issue risks importing that conflict into our town halls and potentially onto our streets, to the detriment of good relationships between communities in the UK.

Local Jewish communities, most of the members of which will feel deep connections to Israel, will view their council boycotting or divesting from companies associated with Israel as an attack on their values as a community. It puts people who care about Israel in an invidious position if the council they rely on for education, social services, parks and waste management is taking a very public stance against a country they love.

Because we’ve already done a good job of stopping this phenomenon, we shouldn’t forget how ugly and irrational local government BDS has looked in the recent past. Protesters have stood on town hall steps accusing the contractor Veolia of being “complicit in war crimes” and tried to block it from winning contracts to collect bins, simply because it used to be a minority partner in building the tram network in Jerusalem. West Dunbartonshire Council interpreted its BDS policy as meaning it had to remove books by Israeli authors from its libraries, and a Clackmannanshire councillor refused to meet a constituent at his advice surgery who was a dual British and Israeli national because she was a “citizen of a settler colonialist state” and so had to be boycotted.

We shouldn’t get hung up on defending the right to boycott of a hypothetical rational, pro-two-states set of people pushing BDS as a lever to get Israel to behave better. That isn’t who is behind BDS motions in practice. BDS globally is led by the BDS National Committee, which opposes most dialogue with Israel and practical peacebuilding efforts as unacceptable “normalisation” and is led by Omar Barghouti, who wants a one-state solution. BDS in the UK is promoted by the PSC, which is not committed to a two-state solution.

The government has made clear there will be waivers to allow boycotts of countries like Russia and Belarus that, unlike Israel, do deserve to be shunned by UK public bodies.

It’s a relief that the government has finally listened to years of campaigning on this issue, and I hope all MPs will vote for the new law.

  • Luke Akehurst is a Labour party activist. ‘We Believe in Israel’ is a UK grassroots network that believes in the right of the State of Israel to live in peace and security.
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