Britain’s Anti-BDS Law Is an Attack on Democracy

Amnesty International has denounced Israeli rule over the Palestinians as a form of apartheid. But the British government is trying to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign and stop it from using the same tactics that helped liberate South Africa.

Demonstrators protest against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, outside the Israeli embassy in London, United Kingdom, January 21, 2022. (Rasid Necati Aslim / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In December of last year, British Conservative politician Robert Jenrick announced that the UK government was “working to outlaw BDS in the UK” and planned to take action in the next few months. Jenrick’s pledge came after his party included a promise to “ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries” in its 2019 general election manifesto.

The threat to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign should be seen in its wider context. The Conservative Party has a decisive majority in Parliament, which it has used to bring forward a panoply of laws intended to restrict the right to protest and roll back human rights protections. The upcoming anti-BDS legislation is part of that effort.

The impending anti-BDS law also forms part of an international push by the Israeli government and its supporters to suppress solidarity with the Palestinian people and, by extension, BDS campaigns. We have already seen the fruits of that effort across Europe and in the United States, with state-level laws designed to curtail BDS.

These global efforts appear to be reaching fever pitch just as solidarity with Palestinians continues to grow. Amnesty International’s new, carefully documented report, condemning the regime of apartheid that Israel imposes on Palestinians as “a cruel system of domination” based on “institutionalized and systematic discrimination,” is another blow to Israel’s propaganda offensive. It is precisely because BDS is such an effective tool for campaigns against injustice that we are seeing it expand, but that is also why it has become such a clear target for repression.

Airbnb’s U-Turn

In October 2013, at the height of the olive harvest season in Palestine, terror struck the village of Jalud. Israeli settlers descended upon the little town, attacking the elementary school, throwing rocks into classrooms, and burning the olive trees that had sustained the village’s residents for generations.

It was an explosive, visceral assault upon a people who had already endured years of slow, cold violence, with the Israeli army blocking access to their lands as the encroaching settler colonies stole them piece by piece. By 2019, the settlers had taken 80 percent of the village’s lands. Those who remain live in fear of violent attacks.

This scenario is repeated all over the occupied West Bank: settlers stake outposts, attack local villages, and the Israeli military protects the settlers and gives them access to Palestinian lands. In turn, the outposts grow into full-blown settlements, connected to the Israeli water and electricity grids, and to Israeli cities through new roads and public transport lines. Israel’s planning policies, military apparatus, and settlers create an overall effect that the muted tones of the United Nations describe as a “coercive environment” — in other words, the conditions of ethnic cleansing.

Over the years, the Palestinians of Jalud watched as the settlements around their village developed. A scattering of trailers became permanent buildings, and settlers started bringing visitors to stay, perched on chairs overlooking the scenic view. The settlers began listing a formerly beloved spot for the villagers as a rural guest house on the Airbnb website for approximately $150 per night.

The house overlooking Jalud’s valley is one of hundreds of Airbnb properties on land stolen from Palestinians that Israeli settlers have listed. Airbnb bolsters their land grabs and normalizes them through the exposure of the major international company’s platform. For companies like Airbnb, business means profits, even if those profits stem from war crimes.

However, Airbnb’s profiting from settlements did not go unnoticed. An international campaign to boycott the firm began to swell online. For years, it rumbled as a reputational crisis for Airbnb. The financial buttressing of properties built in purposeful, ideological contravention of international law, and in the service of the ultimate ethnic cleansing of a people, is simply not good business PR.

After persistent, targeted campaigns, Airbnb announced in November 2018 that it would no longer allow settlement properties to be listed on the website. It was a major victory for campaigners who had worked hard to see it through, including the Palestinians whose stolen land was being advertised.

Yet within months, Airbnb had reversed its decision: settlement units now could list on the site. As a token gesture, the company said that it would donate the proceeds to charity instead of taking profits from enabling criminal activity — settlements are a war crime.

Media reports framed Airbnb’s U-turn as a reaction to a flurry of lawsuits that anti-Palestinian “lawfare” groups and Israeli settlers had filed against the company. But just as important was the chilling effect of new laws that were coming into effect in the United States. The drafters of this legislation sought to curtail the ability of public bodies to cut ties with companies involved in Israel’s illegal colonial outposts.

A Strategic Threat

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns had been building momentum for a decade when, around 2015, Israeli politicians decided to intensify their efforts to suppress them at home and abroad. They declared BDS a “strategic threat” and committed significant resources to countering it. This included pressure on their political allies across the world to introduce laws restricting support for BDS. Before long, those allies were drafting new laws across North America and Europe.

The UK government has now renewed its plans to pass legislation banning public bodies from boycotting or divesting from companies because of their involvement in Israel’s settlements or other war crimes. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) is leading a broad coalition that is gearing up to defend our right to boycott.

This won’t be the first British foray into anti-BDS policy. In 2016, the Conservative government attempted to block local councils from deciding how to invest their pension funds through secondary legislation, claiming that boycotts and divestment campaigns “polarize debate” and “create extra cost to foreign policy.”

When that proposal first saw the light of day, it seemed absurd and self-contradictory: UK policy clearly states that Israeli settlements are illegal, so how could the government ban local councils from deciding not to invest in illegal behavior? The PSC successfully challenged the 2016 proposal, in a case that ultimately went to the UK’s Supreme Court.

The PSC now maintains a database of Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) with investments in companies that aid Israel’s breaches of international law. These funds hold at least £4.4 billion in a range of complicit companies, from banks and weapons companies to consumer brands.

In December 2021, professor Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, wrote to all LGPS pension committee chairs advising them to divest of these holdings. Countless other experts have also recommended divestment from companies that abuse human rights; it is far from a radical proposal.

While the courts threw out the British government’s proposal, a similar law enacted in the US state of Texas went into full effect. In 2017, the Texas governor signed legislation prohibiting the state from contracting with any business that will not sign a pledge not to boycott Israel. While campaigners successfully challenged the Texas law in court last month, dozens of other such laws remain in place, with lawyers playing Whac-a-Mole to keep up.

As US civil liberties lawyers have pointed out, these legal mechanisms will provide a pathway for other right-wing attacks to roll back the gains of broader social justice movements. Corporations and their allies have drafted legislation in Indiana and North Dakota against activists who target fossil fuel companies, using anti-BDS laws as their template. Similar punitive measures have been proposed for anti-gun campaigners in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri. In a globalized, interconnected economy, any state or private company can deploy this kind of legislation to prevent institutions from choosing where to invest or spend their money.

A Repressive Agenda

The UK government is expected to table its new anti-BDS legislation later this year. It will be the latest in a flood of restrictive laws that target individual and collective liberties. This multipronged attack includes the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to massively expand police powers and constrain the right to protest; the Nationality and Borders Bill, which removes the protection of citizenship; and the Overseas Operations Bill, which could prevent prosecution of military personnel for war crimes. The impending anti-BDS legislation is part of the government’s overall crusade against dissent, and against accountability for British companies and government personnel that engage in crimes abroad.

For its part, Israel is combating the right to boycott with all its strength because BDS is a form of nonviolent protest available to anyone in the world. The more Israel’s abuses of Palestinians continue, seemingly unaccountable to anyone, the more people choose to say no. When done collectively, this becomes a very powerful force.

Thousands of artists and cultural figures have joined the boycott for justice, recently visible as tens of artists pulled their acts from the Sydney festival due to its sponsorship by the Israeli government. Major pension funds in Norway and the Netherlands have divested from companies involved in Israel’s settlements and military, as have the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and several Quaker institutions. In most of these cases, divestment is also a tactic used more broadly to, for example, pressure climate-destroying companies. Campaigns have successfully pushed corporations such as HSBC, Orange, Veolia, and G4S to disengage from Israeli settlements and military enterprises.

So long as governments remain unwilling to hold Israel to account for its violations while companies help it maintain its occupation, people will pressure them with campaigns. The same goes for fossil fuel giants, private military companies, mining firms, financial institutions, and countless others that seek to evade human rights or environmental standards.

The right to boycott has been central to major historical victories for justice and equality, from the mass divestment of pension funds from tobacco companies to the global campaign of boycott and sanctions that helped end apartheid in South Africa — and now the movement to disinvest from fossil fuel companies sweeping around the world. Boycotts and divestment campaigns enable ordinary people to force change for good. But it is exactly this kind of people power that the UK government finds so threatening.

Defeating the Bill

The government’s claims about BDS “polarizing communities” are absurd, and we should take them as the offensive red herrings they are. Activists calling for a boycott of South African goods during apartheid faced similar accusations. So did anti-racist campaigners who boycotted discriminatory bus companies in the 1960s. Apartheid, colonialism, the abuse of human rights, and military violence are the forces that actually destroy communities — not taking a stand and refusing to sustain them financially.

Suggestions that BDS campaigns create extra costs for British foreign policy are equally outlandish. Whether they focus on companies involved in illegal Israeli settlements, the occupation of Western Sahara, or the manufacture of weapons used in the bombing of Yemen, such campaigns have the modest goal of bringing companies and governments into line with basic human rights standards that international law dictates. They are neither the beginning nor the end of our broader solidarity work, but they do constitute one of our most effective tools.

The impending anti-BDS law can and must be stopped. The collective power of broad coalitions has already forced some rollback, albeit limited, on the policing bill. Legal interventions have stopped some European anti-BDS policies dead in their tracks. If we can’t push MPs to vote down the bill in Parliament, we can toxify it, making it costly to enforce and ultimately unsustainable.

Palestinians have refused to stop campaigning in the face of escalating land grabs and militarized violence, despite the criminalization of their movement by the Israeli government through thousands of arbitrary arrests and the banning of civil society groups. Our solidarity activism in the UK, including BDS, is a humble part of what protects and upholds that work.

Two hundred thousand of us took to the streets of London last summer to show our solidarity with Palestinians under intense attack in every part of their homeland. This flood of support came despite years of threats on our solidarity movement that attempted to silence us and isolate us from our Palestinian comrades under fire. That massive show of force is the power that scares our complicit government and the corporations that enjoy its carte blanche to profit from death and destruction. We’ll need all of that and more to defeat this upcoming bill.