Middle East Eye / May 25, 2023
Allowing the government to decide what constitutes a legitimate target of protest is a huge threat to democracy in the UK.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about “cancel culture” and also censor what’s allowed to be protested.
The British Conservative government’s plan to ban local councils and other public bodies from participating in boycott and divestment campaigns is only its latest illiberal attack on democratic norms. And, like so much of its recent agenda, including its new voter ID rules, has been imported directly from the fringe right in the United States.
The potential outlawing of peaceful boycotts of human rights abusers is not only an attack on the freedom of expression, but a narrowing of the democratic space; a bid to silence dissent, to say that only the government’s narrative is acceptable. And the British government’s narrative of Israel is one of a good friend.
Meanwhile, Israel’s continuing military occupation of Palestinian lands is a scar on the heart of human dignity. The daily human rights abuses perpetrated against Palestinians are almost beyond counting. It seems that every day brings new reports of collective punishment, killings, and the ongoing expropriation of Palestinian land and water resources.
Targeting the innocent families of those who resist Israel’s brutal occupation is an abuse of human rights. Demolishing their houses is an abuse of human rights. Evicting Palestinian families from their homes in order to install Israeli residents is an abuse of human rights. Launching days-long military offensives in Gaza that kill civilians is an abuse of human rights.
The 15-year blockade on the Gaza Strip, home to two million people, is an abuse of human rights. Administrative detention, holding people without charge or trial, indefinitely renewable, is an abuse of human rights. The demolition of the Bedouin Al-Araqib village in the Negev desert – for the 211th time – is, guess what? An abuse of human rights.
You’ve got to be able to say these are abuses, and that they’re unacceptable, and that they’re long-term and structural, and that the Israeli government is imposing a system of apartheid. And you’ve got to be able to call for change. That’s how you know you’re living in a democracy.
So how can we protest? Ruling out violence, how can we affect change?
Writing to your MP is a non-starter if they’re one of the quarter of Labour MPs or the 80 percent of Conservative MPs who are members of Friends of Israel lobby groups within parliament.
Meanwhile, the space for traditional street protests seems to be narrowing weekly, along with the criminalization of any “direct action” protests. Essentially, any sort of protest (or strike, for that matter) which causes any inconvenience to anyone is increasingly ruled out.
So what campaign tactic has a proven history of working? Boycott, divestment and sanctions. It worked in South Africa, it can work in Israel. The BDS campaign is a Palestinian-led grassroots movement urging action to pressure Israel into complying with international law. Centred on non-violence, it has united unions, churches, community groups and academic groups all around the world.
Israel says it is antisemitic to target “the Jewish state” when many of its Arab neighbours perform executions and oppress women. It also claims that the BDS campaign attempts to “delegitimize” Israel by equating its apartheid with South Africa’s.
It is true that Egypt and Dubai, for example, are both police states, but there are few international calls to stop British tourists from flocking there.
Mind you, neither of those describes themselves as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, nor do they appear on Eurovision (the linchpin of contemporary liberal European culture). Nor have they imprisoned an entire indigenous population, imposed a military system of oppression, stolen resources, and stopped refugees from returning over a period of more than 50 years. Nor do they receive $3.8bn, mostly in military aid, from the US – every year.
Boycotting is the removal of engagement with Israel’s economy, as well as its cultural, academic and sporting institutions. It also means withdrawing support from multinational companies who prop up Israel’s occupation with factories located in occupied territory.
Divestment focuses on the need to withdraw investment from Israeli financial and corporate institutions, while the call for sanctions is a call for governments to abide by their obligations under international law and ban commercial, cultural and military partnerships and trade.
And it wouldn’t need legislating against if it didn’t work.
In 2021, Lancaster City Council voted to support BDS and urged the county council’s pension fund to divest $8m understood to be tied to illegal West Bank settlements.
Leicester City Council, Swansea City Council and Gwynedd Council all had antisemitism discrimination charges brought against them by the charity Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) after they imposed boycotts on Israeli goods. All the claims were dismissed by the High Court.
The government’s plans to prevent UK public bodies from boycotting Israel will soon be tabled in parliament, it was revealed this week by the Financial Times. The bill will stop local councils, or any other public body, from making any boycott decisions “that aren’t in line with UK government foreign or economic trade policies”, according to Right to Boycott, a coalition of 60 unions, NGOs and community groups.
This is chilling, but the priorities of this Conservative government are becoming more clear. Whereas the previous Tory government (ignoring Liz Truss, as we all should) was hell-bent on pushing Brexit through with little regard for fact, consequence or even basic competence, the focus of Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives is to ensconce and protect the rich and powerful, while accelerating an increasingly repressive authoritarianism aimed at the rest of us.
Crackdown on protests
The anti-BDS bill follows the inhumane Nationality and Borders Act, which criminalizes asylum seekers and promises to send them to Rwanda.
Last summer, just before Sunak’s coronation, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act became law, granting sweeping new powers for the police, and including a crackdown on protests. That followed the “Spy Cops” bill of 2021, which gave immunity to undercover officers, and the Overseas Operations Bill (2020), which effectively legalized torture.
The common thread? Throttling any challenge to the British government, choking any effort to hold it and its institutions to account – the cornerstone of living in a democracy.
This anti-boycott bill must be opposed, not just because the BDS movement is a truly global response of solidarity with Palestinian civil society and its call to stop Israel from continuing its human rights abuses, but because we cannot let our government decide who or what is – or isn’t – a suitable target of protest.
It is a fundamental right to decide for yourself who you disagree with. You may disagree with that, of course. Taking that right from us cannot be permitted.
We must boycott Israel until it ends the occupation, ends the apartheid system and starts behaving like a state which respects human rights.
And fight any legislation which tells us that we can’t.
James Brownsell was formerly managing editor of The New Arab and Europe editor at Al-Jazeera English