LFI chair makes case for “focused” anti-BDS legislation in Commons debate

Chris McAndrew, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This evening, LFI chair Steve McCabe MP set out his opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel while critiquing the government’s drafted Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. Read Steve’s full speech below:

“I had been looking forward to this legislation. As the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I am against efforts to destabilise, delegitimise and destroy Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. The purpose of the BDS movement, with its talk of apartheid, genocide and ghettos, is to demonise and, ultimately, destroy Israel. I had hoped we might see a simple Bill designed to restrain the ambitions of BDS, with its single target, the state of Israel. Boycotts are not new for Jews. On 1 April this year, we marked the 90th anniversary of the Nazis’ first nationwide action against the Jews, a boycott targeting Jewish businesses and professionals. There is a long, dark history of boycotts directed against Jewish people. For the world’s only Jewish state to be targeted in this way shows complete indifference to that history and a single-minded determination to destroy Israel’s right to exist.

The effect of BDS is felt not only in Israel. A 2019 Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy report concluded that the victims of BDS include Jews in the diaspora. Let us think what it means to be Jewish in Britain today. There is an understandable affinity between Israel and Jews in this country, but every day Jewish students confront obsessive campaigns for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. BDS seeks to prevent Israeli artists, actors and musicians from performing in Britain. It wants libraries to remove Israeli authors and to “no-platform” Israeli speakers.

Supporters of BDS often seek to draw a comparison with South Africa. The measures taken at that time were designed to end apartheid and bring about the democratic state that we see today. But—here I agree with the Secretary of State—BDS does not support a two-state solution, advocate peace negotiations or seek to bring communities together. To be fair to its leader, Omar Barghouti, he is clear that he opposes a Jewish state in any part of what he calls Palestine. We all know what the chant “From the river to the sea” actually means. BDS is a policy designed to end Israel’s existence. The movement opposes the idea of normalisation; in fact, normalisation has become a pejorative term in relation to Israel and Palestine thanks to the efforts of such movements.

Of course, BDS is not without success: a vociferous campaign against SodaStream led to the closure of a plant in the west bank and the loss of 600 Palestinian jobs. BDS puts at risk the 10,000 UK businesses that have import-export arrangements. The UK is Israel’s second largest trading partner, with a relationship worth about £7 billion. Israeli companies provide one in seven NHS drugs, estimated to save us around £3 billion per year. As we have heard, we are negotiating a new free trade arrangement, which will vastly improve benefits for both countries. Our security arrangements help to save thousands of lives and regularly help to foil terrorist attacks in the UK, yet BDS wants to end military co-operation.

It is against that background that I had hoped to welcome this legislation; instead, we get a dog’s dinner—a Bill that in its present form can serve only to guarantee conflict between the Government, local authorities and other public bodies, and will inevitably result in endless legal challenges. It seeks to limit the freedom for councils and other public bodies to speak out in the face of obvious injustice. Far from not singling out Israel—a key demand of many Jewish and anti-BDS groups—specific attention is drawn to Israel in the Bill.

This is a Bill that has lost focus. Its scattergun approach and willingness to confuse legitimate political protest with what should be simple powers to restrict the demands associated with the BDS movement will provide endless publicity opportunities for Israel’s enemies. It is unworkable in its current form. If there is to be any hope of the Bill becoming a reasonable, practical measure, it requires substantial improvement. I hope that the Secretary of State will not play party or petty politics but seek to build consensus with people across the House who are willing to work together on measures designed to rid us of the malign influence of the BDS movement.

At the same time, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that, although I am full of admiration for her good intentions and acknowledge that the reasoned amendment has been framed in response to the mess before us, I am not entirely sure that it cuts mustard either. Nevertheless, in deference to her good intentions, I will support the amendment tonight. If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Bill Committee, I hope we can find common ground to create workable legislation to tackle the folly of BDS ambitions and its one and only target. I hope we can achieve that without imposing ludicrous restrictions on legitimate political activities, or the freedom of speech of local government and those who represent public bodies. Having waited so long, tonight is a tremendous disappointment for me, but there is still time to put things right. I urge Ministers not to ignore the opportunity.”