Letter to Peers, anti-BDS bill

In February 2024, JJP wrote to selected Peers, including the Lords Spiritual, before the Second Reading debate in the House of Lords, urging the Lords to reject this bill.

Our letter is copied below.

15 February 2024

Dear Bishop …….,

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

We are Jews for Justice for Palestinians. JJP is the largest Jewish peace group in the U.K. or Europe, with 3,000 signatories and nearly 400 supporters. We know that we and the other Jewish peace groups in the UK represent the views of a significant part of the UK’s Jewish population. We have been lobbying embassies, MPs, Peers, ministers and shadow ministers for 22 years. Our principles and the record of our recent advocacy activities can be found on our website, jfjfp.com. The record of our recent European advocacy can be found on the website of European Jews for a Just Peace, ejjp.net.

For the reasons given in this paper, we believe the House of Lords should not give its assent to the Bill. We acknowledge this would be a departure from normal practice, but the fundamentally undemocratic and unjust nature of the Bill justifies it. This paper updates the submission sent to the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee in October 2023.

1. The Bill seeks to remove the right of public bodies to make their own decisions on whether or how to take ethical considerations regarding foreign countries into account in purchasing and investment decisions.

2. It also seeks to penalise individuals who advocate for public bodies to make ethical decisions, and even to penalise officials who make a public statement that they would have made a decision on ethical grounds had they been allowed to so so.

3. Despite its generalised title, the Bill is obviously aimed at protecting the State of Israel from boycotts and divestments in protest against its prolonged occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, its settlements in those territories, and its consequent infringement of Palestinian and Syrian rights. This is made crystal clear by the fact that the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office will be able to issue a derogation for any country except Israel, thereby giving Israel an unprecedented protection from civil society campaigning against human rights abuses, afforded to no other country.

4. Peers are entitled to ask why the government wishes to give Israel this unique protection. The answer is found in the press release by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-public-bodies-banned-from-imposing-their-own-boycotts-against-foreign-countries).

4.1 The press release claims “These campaigns not only undermine the UK’s foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse. That is why we have taken this decisive action to stop these disruptive policies once and for all.” The press release includes supportive statements by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and also cites the approval of the Jewish Leadership Council. Both organisations strongly support Israeli policies.

4.2 However, the claim that boycott and divestment advocacy ”lead{s} to” increases in antisemitic incidents is entirely without evidence. The level of incidents has been on a rising trend in recent years, but that is correlated closely with spikes of violence in Israel and Palestine, particularly with the major Israeli army attacks on Palestinian areas, not with boycott and divestment advocacy. Inevitably, the number of incidents has risen hugely since 7 October 2023.

4.3 The historical charts in the Community Security Trust annual reports of antisemitic incidents show that clearly.

From the 2022 report, pages 15 & 17 (Chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://cst.org.uk/data/file/e/6/CST%20Incidents%20Report%202022.1675768185.pdf): The three big spikes in incidents correlate with attacks on Gaza in December 2008 and July 2014, and the storming of the Al Aksa Mosque, Hamas rocket fire and subsequent attack on Gaza in May 2021. Other smaller temporary increases are due to what the CST calls “trigger events”, which may be smaller outbreaks of violence in Israel-Palestine or events here such as in the long-running controversy about alleged high antisemitism in the Labour Party. The report comments, p. 4, “On five of these six occasions when a monthly total {of incidents} surpassed 100, it was mainly due to reactions to Israel-related conflicts.”

4.4 In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it has to be assumed that both the level of antisemitic incidents and advocacy for boycott and divestment are responses to the prolonged Israeli occupation and the violence it engenders.

4.5 On the basis of the spurious claim made by the Department’s press release and the support of the two communal organisations that strongly support Israeli polices, the Bill seeks to restrict the rights to free expression of public bodies and individuals and compromise the UK’s standing as a supporter of international law.

5. By specifically including “the Occupied Palestinian Territories” and “the Occupied Golan Heights” in the protection given to Israel, the Bill, if passed into law, would place the United Kingdom in a compromised position.

5.1 While recognising the two areas as formally occupied, it would also be treating them as part of Israel’s sovereign territory. They cannot be both.

5.2 By treating the two areas to all intents and purposes as part of Israel’s sovereign territory, the Bill, if passed into law, would place the United Kingdom in the position of legitimising two belligerent occupations because of their long duration and the occupier’s self-evident intention to settle and retain most of the occupied land permanently. That is against both letter and spirit of international law.

The assumptions underlying the legal justification of occupation are that it will be exercised in the interests of the occupied people, and will be temporary, i.e. until the occupied people regain the ability to exercise sovereignty themselves. The Israeli occupations clearly do not meet those assumptions. The United Kingdom should not put itself in the position of legitimising them.

5.3 By recognising the two areas as formally occupied but preventing public bodies from deciding not to buy products from the Israeli settlements located in them, it would be signalling that the United Kingdom no longer considers the settlements illegal. That would be in flagrant disregard of the Fourth Geneva Convention, of which the UK is a signatory, under which it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer any part of its population to the occupied territory. The most recent reiteration of the illegality of the settlements is Security Council Resolution 2334, passed in December 2016.

5.4 By penalising individuals for advocating that public bodies should not buy products from Israeli settlements on ethical grounds, it would compound the signal that the UK no longer considers the settlements illegal.

6. Several respected international and Israeli human rights NGOs have concluded that Israel has created a system of apartheid in the West Bank. By specifically including “the Occupied Palestinian Territories” in the protection given to Israel, the Bill, if passed into law, would place the United Kingdom in the position of accepting that system as legitimate. (link: https://jfjfp.com/has-israel-created-apartheid/)

7. If passed into law, the Bill will place the United Kingdom in flagrant disregard of the rights of the indigenous population of the occupied Palestinian Territories, whose right to self-determination has been systematically repressed by Israel for the whole 56 years of the occupation.

8. In pursuit of the objectives of the Bill, the government is clearly willing to compromise not only British citizens right to free expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and our own Human Rights Act, but also the UK’s standing as a supporter of international law.

9. For all the reasons given above, many people in the Jewish community, well beyond our large membership, do not support the Bill.

We urge the House of Lords to withhold its assent to the Bill.

Executive Committee

Jews for Justice for Palestinians

14 February 2024

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