The UK government recently announced that boycotts in Britain of Israel will be outlawed as part of a move that prevents all publicly-funded institutions from spurning goods or services offered by firms with links to the arms trade, tobacco products or Jewish-only settlements in occupied areas.
According to a government spokesperson, such boycotts “undermine good community relations, poison and polarise debate, weaken integration and fuel anti-Semitism.”
The imposition of these measures will affect city councils, NHS trusts, public bodies and potentially students’ unions across the country currently involved in boycotts or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestine.
The BDS movement is a means of protest against the perceived oppression of Palestinians and the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli state, through campaigning for boycotts of Israeli goods, cutting trade ties with Israel as well as implementing sanctions against it. The movement has garnered significant support across Britain, with many public institutions joining the cause.
Last year the National Union of Students – which represents over 7 million people – voted in favour of boycotting Israel under the motion of ‘Justice for Palestine’ and in 2011, The University of Manchester Students’ Union was the first in the country to ratify a total boycott of Israel in protest against the military presence in Gaza and the West Bank.
Outlining a list of demands, Manchester SU rallied behind the Palestinian cause and devoted itself to the BDS movement. However, that commitment could now be in jeopardy as the government step in to ban “divisive” boycotts in publically-funded bodies.
Critics of the new plans see it less as a protectionary measure for community cohesion and public harmony, and more an attack on democracy, freedom and right to protest.
A spokesperson for the University of Manchester Action Palestine Society said: “We were very saddened to hear of the news that the government will now be outlawing a legitimate form of peaceful protest, which we as British citizens have a right to. It seems illogical to us how they can ban a boycott, which in its very essence is inaction.
“This decision shows the government is using the power the public entrusted in them against the will of the people. If BDS was not something the public wanted, the government wouldn’t need to counter it. We believe it’s an attack on democracy and an attack on freedom of speech.”
Conservative MP Matt Hancock has stated that the policy is in place to “help prevent damaging and counter-productive local foreign policies undermining our national security.”
But a spokesperson for the University of Manchester Students’ Union questioned the logic of the decision, saying: “Students’ Unions are charities regulated by the Charities Commission, and so I find it very baffling how the government could push this law onto charities and in the case of unions, charities that don’t even receive any government funding.
“The ability for organisations and members of the general public to decide where they spend their money is the cornerstone of a democratic society and [this move] would be deeply contradictory of a government which also says it believes in a free market. It is through free markets that consumer choice becomes important and it is a proven fact that boycotts and divestments are a way for ordinary people to take a stand as organisations and governments.”
Echoing Manchester SU’s comments, the university’s Action Palestine society has promoted the role and significance of boycotting, stating: “BDS was a major player in dismantling South African apartheid and it is proving to cause damage to an oppressive regime once again. We as a society will continue to boycott Israeli goods legally by continuing to encourage consumers to take matters into their own hands and not buy Israeli goods.
As far as institutions such as the SU are concerned, we will be playing it by ear and deciding how to move forward with the BDS campaign legally in the near future.”
The future for boycotts within students’ unions remains unclear at this point but they could soon be under threat from a measure the government says will tackle anti-Semitism and improve “good community relations”, but critics are branding an “attack on democracy.”