U.K. bill would outlaw schools and other public bodies from boycotting Israel

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  June 20, 2023

Activists say that new UK legislation to prohibit the boycott of Israel is “a grave attack on our human rights and our ability to defend human rights – not just in Palestine but around the world.”

New legislation in the UK’s parliament would prohibit public bodies from boycotting Israel. The bill, which UK Communities Secretary Michael Gove introduced, would include boycotts of the illegally-occupied Palestinian territory and Golan Heights.

The bill was part of the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto.

“It is simply wrong that public bodies have been wasting taxpayers’ time and money pursuing their own foreign policy agenda,” Gove told The Telegraph. “The UK must have a consistent approach to foreign policy, set by UK Government.”

Public bodies refer to publicly funded institutions like universities and local councils.

A coalition of nearly 70 civil society organizations has put out a statement calling on the UK government to halt the effort. “From bus boycotts against racial segregation to divestment from fossil fuel companies to arms embargoes against apartheid, boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns have been applied throughout history to put economic, cultural, or political pressure on a regime, institution, or company to force it to change abusive, discriminatory, or illegal policies,” it reads. “If passed, this law will stifle a wide range of campaigns concerned with the arms trade, climate justice, human rights, international law, and international solidarity with oppressed peoples struggling for justice. The proposed law presents a threat to freedom of expression, and the ability of public bodies and democratic institutions to spend, invest and trade ethically in line with international law and human rights.”

“As individuals committed to defending human rights and resisting oppression, we must do everything in our power to oppose this draconian legislation,” explained Shamiul Joarder, Head of Public Affairs at Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA), in a statement to Mondoweiss. “This is a grave attack on our human rights and our ability to defend human rights – not just in Palestine but around the world. Right now, the Bill is in the early stages so by acting quickly together, we have the power to stop it becoming law”. FOA has launched a campaign urging people to contact their members of Parliament to oppose the bill.

“Boycott, divestment and sanctions helped end apartheid in South Africa. They will be essential to ending the apartheid regime in Israel, too,” tweeted Former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. “I will firmly oppose the government’s anti-BDS bill — a disgraceful attack on our freedom to fight for human rights, justice and peace.”

Leaders of youth Jewish groups in the UK (Habonim Dror, RSY Netzer, LJY Netzer and Noam Masorti Youth) has also written a statement condemning the move. “We do not support the BDS movement and remain committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” it reads. “We also strongly believe that the basic right to non-violent protest must be safeguarded. Defending our civil rights and freedom of speech necessitates that we protect the right to express views with which we disagree. We recognize that BDS is one of many forms of non-violent protest that the British government is seeking to prohibit with this bill.”

In 2016 the UK government issued guidance which prohibited the Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) from divesting from foreign countries. In June 2017 the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) brought a Judicial Review challenge which resulted in the guidance being deemed unlawful. The Court of Appeal overturned the ruling initially, but the PSC eventually prevailed in court. 

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss