Britain Moves To Outlaw BDS – OpEd


On July 3 Britain’s House of Commons voted in favor of a government Bill that prevents local authorities and other public bodies from imposing their own economic boycotts or sanctions against foreign states.  The government’s intention is to frustrate the aims of the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.  

Opening the debate, Secretary of State Michael Gove explained that “Action is required here because there is an existing, organized and malign campaign that aims to target and delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state. That campaign seeks to persuade public bodies to make commercial decisions solely on the basis of harming that state and its people.”

Legislative action became necessary because in 2016 the UK courts ruled, and in 2017 the High Court upheld, that the government was acting unlawfully by seeking to restrict “ethical” boycotts of Israel.  Three city councils were named in the original court case, and during the debate on the current Bill a fourth was singled out for mention.  

After several hours of debate, the Bill was given what is known as its Second Reading by 268 votes to 70.   Two Conservatives voted against it, while more than 80 abstained.  So did the Labour opposition, which has said that unless the Bill is amended to its liking during its legislative passage through Parliament, they will finally vote against it.

During the debate Labour’s shadow minister, Lisa Nandy, while roundly condemning the BDS movement, said: “It is not, in our view, wrong for public bodies to take ethical investment and procurement decisions.”  But, she continued: “To seek to target Israel alone, to hold it to different standards from other countries, to question its right to exist, to equate the actions of the Israeli government with Jewish people, and in doing so create hate and hostility against Jewish people here in the UK is completely wrong… I feel strongly that BDS offers no meaningful route to peace either for the Palestinians or for the Israelis… When BDS is used as an argument for the total economic, social and cultural isolation of the world’s only Jewish state, not only will I speak out but I have spoken out time and time again.”

In December 2019, after five years under the leadership of hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party suffered its worst electoral defeat since the mid-1930s.  Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is attempting to maneuver the party toward mainstream British opinion, but he has an uneasy relationship with the more left-wing Trades Union movement, the party’s main source of finance, which views his efforts with suspicion.  At its annual meeting in 2019 the Trades Union Congress (TUC) itself voted in favor of boycotting Israel, while the following year it passed a motion calling for sanctions to oppose “Israel’s annexation plans”.  Labour’s equivocal position is clearly on display as it condemns BDS while at the same time abstains from the vote on the Bill’s Second Reading.

In introducing his anti-boycott Bill, Michael Gove was determined to explain fully why the BDS movement is specifically targeted.  As he launched into this part of his speech, he rejected effort after effort by MPs to intervene, insisting on setting out the government’s position without interruption.

“The BDS movement deliberately asks public bodies to treat Israel differently from any other nation on the globe,” said Gove.  “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. 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… But the BDS movement asks that, alone among nations, Israel be treated as illegitimate in itself…

“The founder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, has been clear in his opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state,” said Gove.  “He has attacked what he calls the ‘racist principles of Zionism’ – that is, the fundamental right of the Jewish people to self-determination…He opposes any idea of a two-state solution – a secure Israel alongside a viable and democratic Palestine. Instead, the BDS movement’s leader wants a ‘one-state solution…where, by definition, Jews will be a minority.’

“It is …no part of this government’s determination or intent to give any heart or succor to a movement that argues that the two-state solution is wrong, and that Jews should be a minority in one state.”

The vote on July 3 was only an early step in a long legislative journey.  Most UK legislation starts life as a Bill in the House of Commons, introduced either by the government or a private member.  If it is not voted down at that First Reading stage, it is granted a full debate and vote – its Second Reading.  If it passes that test, it moves into what is known as the Committee Stage, where it is scrutinized word by word, line by line, with each change to the original draft subject to a vote.  It then returns to the Commons in its amended form for what is known as its Report Stage and Third Reading.  

The next step is for the Bill to be passed to the House of Lords, the scrutinizing and revising chamber in Britain’s bi-cameral legislative system.  Here  it goes through precisely the same procedure, namely First and Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading.  The Bill as amended by the Lords is then returned to the Commons, where it is either approved in its newly revised form, or rejected.  If the Commons do not like the Lords’ amendments, a tug-of-war ensues.  In the final analysis, however, the will of the Commons must prevail.  Once it has received the Royal Assent, a Bill turns into an Act of Parliament, and becomes the law of the land.

In special cases Bills can pass through the whole legislative process in a matter of days; sometimes they can take years. On average a full year is needed to complete the process. Bills can be carried over from one parliamentary session to another, but if Parliament is prorogued prior to a general election, the whole legislative machine is brought to a stop.  

The next general election must take place in the UK on or before January 25, 2025.  This Bill, scrutinized and doubtless much amended, and perhaps improved, will either have received the Royal Assent by then, or it will be up to a new administration to start the wearisome process over again.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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