Discover more from Melanie Phillips
The UK government's measure against the Israel boycott
My evidence to the parliamentary committee on the bill
Last week, I gave evidence to the parliamentary standing committee considering the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. This measure, piloted by the Communities Secretary Michael Gove, is intended to prevent local councils or other publicly-funded bodies from making procurement or investment decisions based on political or moral disapproval of a foreign state. In other words, it prohibits boycotts of foreign countries.
Although there are possible exceptions to this ban, such as being able to boycott a country such as China over its use of slave labour or divest from a state acting in ways that would constitute environmental offences in the UK, no exceptions are permitted in relation to Israel, the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” or the “Occupied Golan Heights”.
The bill singles out Israel alone for an absolute ban on such boycotts because Israel alone is singled out for destruction by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. As Gove told the Commons:
The BDS movement deliberately asks public bodies to treat Israel differently from any other nation on the globe. It asks them to treat the middle east’s only democracy as a pariah state and to end links with those who have a commercial presence there… The BDS movement asks that, alone among nations, Israel be treated as illegitimate in itself…
It is designed to erase Israel’s identity as a home for the Jewish people. Again, the founders of the BDS campaign have been clear, saying: “A Jewish state in Palestine in any shape or form cannot but contravene the basic rights of the…Palestinian population and…ought to be opposed categorically”.
Alongside those who lead the BDS movement on the BDS national committee sit members of the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, a coalition of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — all militant organisations that are proscribed by this Government.
The provisions are specifically designed to provide a high bar to ensure that local government acts as it should in accordance with the interest of its citizens, to ensure that UK foreign policy is articulated with one voice, and to ensure in particular that a campaign that those on both Front Benches are clear has been responsible for the demonisation of the state of Israel, for the delegitimisation of its right to exist and for discrimination against Jewish people in this country, is, at last, dealt with.
Other witnesses giving evidence to the committee at the session I attended were Jonathan Turner, CEO of UK Lawyers for Israel; Steven Barrett, a barrister at Radcliffe Chambers; Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director, Human Rights Watch; Dave Timms, Head of Political Affairs, Friends of the Earth; Peter Frankental, Programme Director Economic Affairs, Amnesty International UK; and Richard Hermer KC, a barrister at Matrix Chambers.
Witnesses at the committee are required to restrict their answers to the questions the MPs ask them. In my attempt to do so, I realised subsequently that I had omitted a key point I had wanted to make. Accordingly, I wanted to add some additional evidence after the hearing.
You can watch the entire committee session here.
You can read the full text of the session here.
You can also read below the text of what I told the MPs, followed by my addendum.
My evidence to the committee:
Q The BDS movement almost exclusively targets Israel. Can you talk about the effect of the BDS movement on the Jewish community and on community cohesion?
Melanie Phillips: Many people, pretty understandably, draw a distinction between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. However, my view is that what we are all talking about when we talk about concerns over the way Israel is treated in public discourse is not criticism but a unique campaign of delegitimisation and demonisation.
Now, it should not follow that, even if you demonise the state of Israel, British Jews get it in the neck. But it is a fact — it is on record — that every time the public prints are full of not just criticism of Israel’s behaviour but a presentation of Israel in which it is a unique human rights abuser in the region, attacks on British Jews, both verbal and physical, go up. So there is in practice — whatever the reasons you may adduce — a complete connection between the two. In my view, that is not really surprising. For many people in this country and elsewhere, their understanding of Judaism, the Jewish people, Jewish history and the connections between all those things and the land of Israel is extremely limited. Many people do not understand how intimately Jewish identity — Jewish religious identity — is wrapped up with the land of Israel.
For all those reasons, a boycott movement that stigmatises Israel, singles it out for treatment afforded to no other country and identifies it, therefore, inescapably as a unique evil in the world must have an impact on the Jewish community.
Felicity Buchan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)
Q I have one quick follow-up question. There has been a lot of talk about clause 4, which prohibits statements of intent to boycott. Would you agree that we need clause 4, because a statement of intent sows community division without achieving anything?
Melanie Phillips: Yes. A statement of intent is clearly no more or less than that, but the evil of a statement of intent is that it is a statement of delegitimisation — a statement that Israel is uniquely evil, that it uniquely requires this kind of approach. Therefore, any Jewish person in Britain who supports Israel is deemed to be fair game, and any Jew is deemed to be fair game because people assume, rightly or wrongly, that they identify with Israel.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
Q I understood the Bill to be largely about the Conservative party meeting its manifesto promise to address BDS — in fact, the Prime Minister restated that recently. If that is the main purpose of the Bill — and I have to say I am in favour of that — do you think we need the exemption that means that Israel and the Palestinian territories are the only places that the Secretary of State cannot regulate for? Does it add anything extra to the Bill?
Melanie Phillips: I think there is no contradiction between the two. As you say, the Bill is the fulfilment of a manifesto commitment. The manifesto commitment is a broad one, and the Bill is a broad one, as you heard from your previous witnesses. There are exemptions of different kinds, and the particular exemption you are talking about, which singles out Israel, is done for a particular reason: in a Bill that deals generally with boycotts, there is one boycott that stands out as unique, which is the boycott movement against Israel. It has characteristics that do not apply to any other action taken against any other country, group or cause. In the view of the Government, and I agree with this view, it is a uniquely evil impulse, designed uniquely to destroy Israel as the Jewish state — as the Jewish homeland — and with malign potential repercussions on the Jewish community. Consequently, because it is a unique situation, it requires a specific exemption, as it is so bad that it cannot be ever thought that it could ever happen.
Wayne David ((Caerphilly) (Lab)
Q Could I say that I have regularly, over many, many years, read your excellent articles in The Times and indeed elsewhere. I understand that you feel very strongly about this issue, and I personally have gone on record many times as being implacably opposed to the BDS movement. However, one worry I have is that much of the mechanism in the Bill requires exemptions, and the Government have indicated that there will be some exemptions, but they have not mentioned China, and I do not think they will mention China. Yet there is tremendous concern among the Uyghurs, for example, as we have heard in this Committee, about the possible curtailment of action at a community level against China. Is that a concern you share?
Melanie Phillips: I am certainly concerned about China. And, by the way, thank you very much for the compliment — flattery will get you everywhere. I am concerned about China, and I would like and prefer our Government to take a stronger view about China — a stronger approach to China. But that is not really the point at issue here; the point at issue here is that it is for the Government to determine foreign policy — I may disagree with that policy, but it is for the Government to determine it. If local authorities or public bodies — bodies taking public money — go off on a frolic of their own and boycott China, Saudi Arabia or whoever, you have a kind of anarchy, and you cannot have that. To me, that is the issue.
As I understand it from what Ministers have said and from my reading of the Bill and these exemptions — obviously, you realise I am not a lawyer — the Bill allows public bodies who take a view that the procurement decision they are being asked to take would involve the use of Uyghur slave labour in China to use the exemptions to not go down that procurement road. But the exemptions are limited to a number of areas that the Government have deemed to be on the right side of the line when it comes to saying that it is for the Government of the day to determine foreign policy, which I think is a sensible rule for the Government of the country.
Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East) (Con)
Q We have heard evidence that some believe the Bill could make division worse, but many others have argued that that would not be the case. Part of what the BDS movement calls for is for people to stop Palestinian organisations working with Israeli organisations. Do you think that is evidence, and is there any more evidence, that the Bill would not make community tensions worse and seeks to make them better?
Melanie Phillips: I do not think the Bill itself seeks to make tensions worse or better, but it is a fair question to ask whether it will have that effect both here and in Israel and the disputed territories. The fact is that people who advocate boycotts of Israel over its behaviour in those territories, which classically involve targeting companies that have a presence in them, believe that this is hurting Israel. Well, it does, but the people it really hurts are the Palestinian Arabs who work for these organisations and companies. They have said over many years that they wish that the west would not go down this road. It is a disaster for them when it goes down this road. They and their families depend for their livelihoods on these companies. Boycotts are performative from their point of view — they are performative virtue signalling, which not only does not address the political challenges and difficulties that they believe they have but actually takes away their livelihoods. So this hurts them, and it does nothing about community divisions in these areas, because a state of — whatever you like to call it — war, insurrection, permanent threat of terrorist violence and so on engulfs this area, and Israelis are being killed, or there are attacks intending to kill them, literally every day. This does not affect that at all. What it would do, in my view, as I have said already, is make the situation of British Jews worse — it would affect it very badly. It would increase community divisions here; it would increase suspicion, aggression and division between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community here.
My further evidence to the committee:
In describing the likely impact of any Israel boycott on the Jewish community in Britain, I said it would be severe because a boycott would single out the Jewish state as such a unique evil in the world that it should not exist at all. This would taint Britain’s Jews who are thought to be inescapably connected to Israel, and would therefore put them in danger of physical or verbal attack.
The point I didn’t make clear, which is a crucial amplification, is that this campaign against Israel is based entirely on falsehoods and distortions designed to demonise and delegitimise it in the eyes of the world.
The campaign paints Israel falsely as a gross human rights offender that wilfully or carelessly kills Palestinian civilians in its military operations. In fact, it causes the death of a far smaller proportion of civilians to combatants than any other army in the world.
It describes Israel’s “occupation” of the disputed territories of the “West Bank” as illegal. In fact, its activities in these territories are fully in accordance with international law on a number of different legal grounds.
It also falsifies Jewish history, by claiming that the Palestinian Arabs are the original occupants of the land. In fact, the Jews are the only people for whom it was ever their national kingdom hundreds of years before the Arabs formed one of many waves of subsequent occupiers.
The demonisation of Israel based on these and other related falsehoods, and upon which the boycott campaign draws, reflects precisely the pattern of antisemitic attacks throughout history which have demonised the Jews through malicious untruths and fantasies. This is why the boycott campaign is all too likely to have a baleful effect on Britain’s Jews.
My most recent exclusive post for my premium subscribers discusses how the climate change cult has corrupted science. This is how the piece begins:
One of the reasons why man-made global warming theory has become so powerful is that many scientists produce research that appears to support it, while few produce work that refutes it. Accordingly, arguments demonstrating that studies promoting the theory are based on inadequate computer projections, flawed statistical sampling or outright academic fraud are all dismissed out of hand. The point made repeatedly by the eminent meteorologist Professor Richard Lindzen, that researchers simply don’t get grant funding unless their work upholds the theory, is scoffed at or ignored. Understandably, people find it very hard to believe that the globally all-powerful climate-change emperor could actually have no clothes.
And you can read my most recent post that’s available to everyone, in which I argue that taking sides in the fight between Elon Musk and the Anti-Defamation League reflects moral confusion, by clicking here.
One more thing…
This is how my email posts work.
There are two subscription levels: my free service and my premium service.
Anyone can sign up to the free service on this website. You can of course unsubscribe at any time by clicking “unsubscribe” at the foot of each email.
Everyone on the free list will receive the full text of pieces I write for outlets such as the Jewish News Syndicate and the Jewish Chronicle, as well as other posts and links to my broadcasting and video work.
But why not subscribe to my premium service? For that you’ll also receive pieces that I write specially for my premium subscribers. Those articles will not be published elsewhere. They’ll arrive in your inbox as soon as I have written them.
There is a monthly fee of $6.99 for the premium service, or $70 for an annual subscription. Although the fee is charged in US dollars, you can sign up with any credit card. Just click on the “subscribe now” button below to see the available options for subscribing either to the premium or the free service.
And you can always access the links to all my work by visiting my website at melaniephillips.substack.com .
A note on subscriptions
If you purchase a subscription to my site, you will be authorising a payment to my company Dirah Associates. In the past, that is the name that may have appeared on your credit card statement. In future, though, the charge should appear instead as Melanie Phillips.
And thank you for following my work.