UK cracks down on boycott protests with controversial new bill, but is the BDS movement to blame?

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jan 29, 2024 at 05:03 PM

Reading time: 8 minutes

For centuries, political movements have used the practice of boycotting to pressure states and complicit institutions to end discrimination and apartheid. From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this method of social and financial disruption has endured as a legitimate and effective tool to challenge inequality and injustice.

However, it is this very right to boycott that has moved to the centre of political debate within the last two years in the UK. During the Queen’s Speech in May 2022, the UK government first hinted at its plans to prevent public bodies from boycotting “certain countries.”

Fast forward to June 2023, when officials from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities introduced the Economic Activity of Public Bodies bill. The legislation was designed to prevent public organisations like councils from participating in boycotts, divestment and sanction activities, with specific reference to Israel. And, despite widespread concerns that the bill might be undercutting the right to protest and free speech, it passed by 282 votes to 235 on 10 January 2024 in the House of Commons.

MPs on both sides of the political aisle had spoken out against the legislation, warning that it might breach international law and isolate the UK politically. Multiple charities and civil rights organisations added that the legislation would likely stifle a wide range of social campaigns, such as opposition to arms trade or climate activism.

Nevertheless, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the department, remained stern in his view that the bill would fight antisemitism and guarantee that foreign policy remained a UK government matter.

Still, the anti-BDS bill, as it’s colloquially known, has been critiqued for employing a collective form of punishment to crack down on one specific movement: the BDS campaign against Israel.

What is the BDS movement?

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS as it’s often referred to, is a boycott of Israeli goods that was formally launched in 2005 by a coalition of about 170 Palestinian unions, refugee networks, women’s organisations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies.

BDS describes itself as a nonviolent and antiracist movement that utilises boycott tactics to pressure Israel into ending its systematic oppression of Palestinians. Nevertheless, the movement has been designated as antisemitic and excluded from government funding in the US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and now the UK, for reasons I will delve into later.

First, however, I want you to take a look at the case for BDS.

What is BDS calling for?

Until recently, the effort to boycott Israel did not even register in the corridors of power. After its establishment in 1948, Israel had achieved its goal: normalcy as a state—and this came with international treaties, trade deals, a slot in Eurovision, and so on. Of the nearly 200 countries in the world, over 160 have relations with Israel, including six members of the Arab League.

However, with the continued hostilities and cycles of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, BDS canonised and advanced from a relatively unknown grassroots movement to a global mass boycott that spread to Western communities, schools and college campuses.

“I think for a long time Israel was trying to be the thing that it says it is, right? A Jewish state, but one trying to absorb across democratic principles and to work in a humane way. I think that that functionally ended. And so using boycott and divestment and sanction techniques to try to put pressure on them to go in a different direction makes a lot of sense to me,” New York Times opinion journalist and political commentator Ezra Klein stated.

What we need to understand about BDS is that it is a last resort. After failed military uprisings, failed diplomatic efforts, and violent crackdowns on dissidents, over 170 different Palestinian organisations decided to unite under the age-old tradition of a silent and non-violent boycott. Their aim is to isolate Israel internationally, mirroring the approach used to pressure apartheid-era South Africa, and to withdraw financial complacency in Israel’s various human rights violations against Palestinians.

The campaign’s foundation came with three central objectives: freedom for residents of the occupied territories, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right to return for Palestinians and their descendants who had to flee during the Nakba. These aims address both present challenges and historical injustices, especially the right to return. However, this is also where some of BDS’ problems begin.

Why do people oppose BDS?

To understand the reasoning behind the bill, we need to uncover the case against the movement, which requires us to understand how Israel views BDS.

In 1948, when Israel declared itself a state, five Arab countries attacked the newly formed country in precisely the murderous ways we saw Hamas attack on 7 October 2023.

“Israel is a state formed, like many states, in violence. In my view, it was not formed by a UN resolution, that the UN never had any intention or capability to enforce,” Klein stated in an episode of his New York Times podcast The Erza Klein Show. “So the UN does try to partition, but the UN doesn’t enforce that. They don’t send a military to do it. So instead what there is is a war. And the Arab countries try to wipe out this new state of Israel. Israel tries to not be wiped out and Israel wins. And that is what creates the state of Israel—a war—just like many other states,” he continued.

Israel fought for its existence as a state and it continues to do so to this day. As of December 2020, 28 UN member states do not recognise Israel’s statehood. This includes 15 members of the Arab League, such as Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as ten members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan.

What Israel has communicated multiple times on the global stage is that it wants normalcy, despite its relative novelty (fun fact, US President Joe Biden is six years older than Israel), legitimacy and security. In its view, it is surrounded by neighbours that do not respect it and wish for its demise and BDS is a manifestation of this concern. And the campaign has not yet tried to appease Israel in that view.

The BDS National Committee’s members include several groups that have been designated as terrorist organisations by the UK government. For instance, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These groups also undermine BDS’ claim to nonviolence because they have incited multiple violent attacks, suicide bombings and missile strikes.

To gain a better understanding of the arguments against BDS, SCREENSHOT spoke to Nicholas Potter, a British-German journalist and researcher for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation which investigates on right-wing extremism, racism and antisemitism.

“I would question how peaceful the BDS movement actually is. They often operate with threats, bullying tactics, try to aggressively disrupt events—in some cases even events where Holocaust survivors are speaking. In Germany, members of the press have been physically attacked at demonstrations organised by BDS-linked groups,” he stated.

Potter continued: “The very first signee of the founding call of the BDS movement is the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, of which the terror groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and PFLP are members. So I would strongly call into question, whether BDS can truly be called a peaceful movement.”

Furthermore, BDS has very openly rejected Israel’s existence so far (the one thing it is so hypersensitive about). Omar Barghouti, a reputable Palestinian activist and co-founder of the BDS campaign has passionately advocated for the cause through compelling columns for The New York Times and The Guardian. Nevertheless, Barghouti strictly opposes a two-state solution because it would not resolve the “fundamental injustices” Israel has brought upon the Palestinians. Instead, he supports a one-state solution that encompasses all of what is now Israel. When asked if that means Jews cannot have their state, he replied: “Not in Palestine.”

Lastly, there is the demand for a right of return, which to many, embodies Barghouti’s sentiment regarding a one-state solution.

“Most Israelis understand that as a way of destroying the state of Israel. During my conversation with Tareq Baconi, he mentioned his estimate of, I think, 14 million Palestinians worldwide who can claim some ancestry here. Israel has seven million. Israeli Jews, nine million in population. So, to Israelis, that is a way of saying you’re going to destroy the state of Israel. It isn’t you will destroy it by looting it and burning it to the ground,” Klein explained.

“I think right of return is a lie that has been told to people. I mean, that is a part of it that kind of breaks my heart. I have talked to people who work in refugee camps in Jordan, Egypt, et cetera. And they’ve met people who have the keys to their grandparents’ house on a necklace around their neck, because it shows you’re going to go back there someday. And you’re not,” the journalist continued.

“There’s no right of return for the Jews who were expelled from Iran. There’s no right of return for the people expelled during partition in India and Pakistan. No right of return for the Germans expelled after World War 2 out of Eastern Europe. About 900,000 Jews, is the number I’ve heard, were expelled, or left, or fled different parts of the Middle East during this period. There’s no right of return for them. It’s not going to happen,” he concluded.

When I asked Potter about the right to return, he seemed to share Klein’s view on it: “The right of return for Palestinians is unique among all refugee groups worldwide, as it can be passed on through the generations, meaning there are now millions more Palestinian refugees than the original 700,000 who fled Israel in the war of independence in 1948. Instead of campaigning for a realistic two-state solution, BDS demands their return, which would demographically end Israel as a Jewish state. This is a completely unreasonable and unprecedented demand that is also wholly counterproductive to a two-state solution. A perpetual refugee status also hinders any attempt to integrate Palestinians into the societies of other countries. In Lebanon, Palestinians still live generations later without many rights and are even barred from having certain jobs such as in the legal or medical professions.”

Another demand is an end to the ‘occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.’ This leaves much room open for interpretation – but leading figures of the BDS movement like Omar Barghouti are very eager to clarify that they consider all of Israel-occupied Arab land and their goal is nothing less than an end to the Jewish state,” Potter continued.

Consequently, BDS pushes terms that Israel is unlikely to ever accept in two-state negotiations, considering that it does not have the capacity, or quite frankly mind to do so. It does not campaign for co-existence with Israelis, its goal is to absorb the state of Israel into a Palestinian one.

As a result, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the campaign, a move that was met with criticism from many activists.

Potter ended: At the same time: BDS is a heterogenous movement and its goals are intentionally worded in a vague way to make them more accessible. Not everyone who calls for a boycott of Israel or attends a BDS demo necessarily shares the views of BDS’ founding organizations or its leading figures or even understands their implications, even if most are still driven at best by a hatred of Israel and at worst a hatred of Jews.

The middle ground

BDS’ unwillingness to accept Israel, despite established international law and insistence on terms the country will not accept in peace negotiations, has diminished its potential because it deprives it of the things it desperately needs—broad international government funding and support.

Furthermore, it has reduced the campaign to a political pawn and target for right-wing politicians. Israeli opponents of a Palestinian state, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, use BDS to produce enemy images of Palestinians, Palestinian extremists use it as a way to undermine Israel’s existence, and conservative politicians abroad vilify it as the example of a movement that seeks to incite disruption with no reasonable objectives.

In the UK specifically, it provides the perfect excuse for a broader crackdown on protests. It started with 2022’s Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, which controversially expanded the police’s power to break up protests and led to widespread “kill the bill” demonstrations across the country and this effort is continuing with the anti-BDS bill now. Every country that exists has the right not to have its existence and the legitimacy of its borders questioned. And by holding this truth of international law against BDS, the bill is trying to suffocate all forms of civil disobedience practised through boycotts.

However, boycotts by public bodies are too grand and politically meaningful to reduce them to one singular, extremist campaign.

The British consulate in East Jerusalem which hosts representatives of the UK to the Palestinian Authority, for instance, has long conducted an informal boycott of Israeli settlements. As part of it, the consulate refuses to serve settlement wines, water or other settlement products at functions. It is this sort of meaningful and justified boycott that has long been endorsed by the Palestinian Authority and UK government bodies that will be barred too.

However, peaceful and legitimate boycotts of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories that respect the country’s right to exist need to be protected, just like the broader right to protest. It serves as a powerful means to address human rights concerns and advocate for positive change on the global stage.

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