Boris Johnson's BDS bill brings Britain closer to America and Israel further from peace

Douglas Gerrard
The BDS movement has urged businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
The BDS movement has urged businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

One of the more surprising elements of last month’s the Queen’s speech was the announcement of a new law essentially criminalising the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Despite mentioning neither Israel nor BDS by name, the wording of the speech made clear the target of proposed legislation. Under threat of prosecution, public bodies like universities and local councils will be prohibited from “imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.”

The proposed law signals Boris Johnson hitching his foreign policy to America’s, which under Trump is increasingly hostile to BDS. This was evidenced a few weeks ago, when Trump signed an executive order officially labelling Jews an ethnic minority (rather than an exclusively religious one). The order, putatively aimed at combatting antisemitism, is, in reality, a weapon with which to fight BDS on college campuses, by designating boycotts a form of racial discrimination.

This is the culmination of a long-brewing storm: laws punishing BDS are now on the books in over two dozen US states, and a federal bill, which would allow states to force businesses to sign pledges forswearing the movement, is currently lying dormant in the Senate.

The debate around anti-BDS laws is commonly had on the level of freedom of expression. Opponents of such laws argue that they constitute censorship. The laws’ supporters counter that (usually) only public bodies are prohibited from supporting boycotts; private individuals are free to do so.

Yet such debates often preclude a deeper consideration of the rightness or wrongness of BDS itself. What is the principled justification for an anti-BDS law? The government’s line, as reiterated by Eric Pickles, special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, is that BDS should be prohibited on anti-racist grounds. “BDS is just a thin disguise for anti-Semitism,” he remarked at a recent conference in Jerusalem. “[It is] one of the worst wink wink, nudge nudge, pieces of racialism that we know.”

The implicit argument is not just that BDS covers for antisemites under the guise of Palestinian solidarity. It’s that BDS is inherently antisemitic because, rather than limiting its scope to the occupied territories, it makes the whole of Israel its target (it’s for this reason that liberal Zionists who oppose BDS will often favour boycotting only goods produced in Israeli settlements). In so doing, goes the argument, BDS rejects Jewish self-determination as such, rather than insofar as it impinges upon that of Palestinians.

The anti-racist case against BDS appears to make sense. But upon contact with reality, it crumbles. “Israel good, occupation bad” isn’t a useful maxim, because there’s no longer a clear way of distinguishing Israeli settlements from the Israeli state.

The Green Line – the border dividing Israel and the West Bank – was always somewhat blurred, but it is increasingly so, both by law as well as by facts on the ground. For instance, one recently-ratified Israeli law prohibits companies from refusing to sell their services in the occupied territories, rendering the distinction between Israeli and settlement-produced goods largely meaningless. Another law transfers control of higher education in the West Bank from a special council to the Israeli government, meaning that a law banning academic boycott in the UK could in effect force British universities to associate with those in the occupied territories.

Laws like this are not aberrations: they reflect the inextricable entanglement of the Israeli state with the settlement project. There is a one-state reality in Israel-Palestine, where a single government rules over roughly seven million Jewish citizens and five million disenfranchised Arabs.

Johnson’s anti-BDS law effectively endorses this reality, bolstering the occupation with international legitimacy as well as financial support. As for where this all might lead, we can look again to the US, where a Texan speech pathologist recently lost her job after refusing to sign an anti-BDS pledge.

It’s now brutally clear that the Trump administration is following a post-two-state strategy, of which anti-BDS laws are a central part. Where American support for Israel was once at least nominally conditional on the peace process, Trump’s presidency has given Netanyahu – and his allies to the right – free reign in the occupied territories, green-lighting the impending annexation of parts of the West Bank. By placing us in alignment with America, this new law presages a similar future for the UK’s Israel-Palestine policy. Perhaps we will soon see our own embassy moved to Jerusalem or UK recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights. The Conservatives might even ape the Republican Party by ceasing to mention a Palestinian state at all.

The prospects of a future Palestinian state are already dismal. If this new law is any indication, Johnson’s Conservatives may do it irreparable damage.