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Originally published in City AM.
The British government is currently preparing legislation that will prohibit public bodies from adopting boycotts against Israel.
Under the provisions of this new law, the government would be able to prosecute local councils, universities, students unions and a range of other state organisations should they attempt to boycott the Jewish state.
While the movement lobbying for boycotts of Israel remains fringe, there has been a growing trend of anti-Israel boycotts in certain quarters.
Students Unions at British universities have been no stranger to moves seeking to boycott Israel, and in recent years some city councils have also been leaning towards boycotting Israel. Leicester City Council previously voted to boycott some Israeli products. There have been similar motions at four Scottish local councils and also at Swansea City Council.
Yet even these decisions are gradually being reversed. Councils adopting such policies face legal action as they are in breach of already existing law UK law prohibiting local government from adopting their own foreign policy positions, which is what a boycott of Israel amounts to.
David Cameron’s former communities secretary Eric Pickles put it best when he hit back against the campaign to boycott Israel saying “The attempt by the irresponsible left to demonise Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations.”
In many ways the move to boycott Israel is unfathomable. There are simply no other comparable campaigns to impose public boycotts against other countries, despite the fact that there are so many states with human rights records so appalling that they make the Israelis look like saints.
Seeing students and intellectuals calling for academic boycotts against Israel is particularly baffling. The Middle East is full of countries that repress free expression at universities and that persecute free thinking academics, but Israel isn’t one of them.
It is also troubling to see prominent figures and campaigners on the left supporting boycotts against Israel. The left has long championed equal rights for women and homosexuals. Israel guarantees protection and freedom for minorities, has long taken a tolerant view on gay rights and been progressive on women’s issues. Plenty of Israel’s neighbours don’t but those societies have not been singled out by the left for boycott campaigns.
Ultimately, it appears that Britain and America may be travelling in a very different direction on the boycott issue compared to the stance being adopted in Europe. Last year the European Union voted to implement a labelling policy for Israeli products produced in the disputed West Bank territories. That move was seen as a nod of endorsement to boycotts.
Yet in the US, many state senates are now passing legislation outlawing anti-Israel boycotts and we may see a similar move at the federal level with many in Congress ready to support such laws. This latest move from the British government appears to show Cameron siding with the American view on boycotts, as opposed to the one becoming prevalent in Europe.