Boycotting is a democratic staple – the government ban is blatant censorship

Last week, the UK government announced new rules to stop “politically motivated” boycotts of Israel by local councils, with clauses that leave open the possibility of restricting the right to participate in boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) for trade unions, charities, and even student unions.

Whatever your views on the state of Israel, denying British citizens the right to take part in peaceful, albeit controversial, measures on a local or voluntary level is cowardly, puerile, and thoroughly illiberal.

Campaigns to boycott Israel have been accused of inconsistency, dishonesty, even bigotry. To be sure, the situation for non-Jewish Palestinians living under Jewish occupation is often appalling. Palestinians in Israel are regularly besieged and bombed; they are denied the right to purchase land or housing in nearly one-fifth of Palestinian territory; they are restricted from teaching history that diverges from a pro-Israeli narrative in schools and some university campuses.

This is awful, but it is inconsistent to single out Israel as a uniquely menacing agent of injustice. And often the BDS movement does resort to ugly and bigoted anti-Semitic tropes. When boycott campaigners contend that Israel disproportionately kills children, or that it secretly pulls strings in European parliaments, the movement threatens to give way to puerile racism.

Local councils have used their procurement and pension policies to effectively ‘punish’ Israel and the UK defence industry. Labour-affiliated trade unions have, en masse, done the same. In the past decade, many student organisations – including entire SUs – have joined the boycotts campaign. There are good reasons for criticising the boycotts movement, and especially the way in which it goes about its aims.

But it does not follow from this that voluntary associations like student unions should not be entitled to protest as loudly and aggressively against Israel as they please without expecting state intervention or silencing.

It is fundamentally undemocratic to ban BDS, or any campaign for boycotts, when they are pursued by voluntary associations and do not violate any existing laws. Freedom of association can result in people getting together to organise around principles not shared by everyone in the outside world. And they can lead to actions which many may find objectionable.

But provided they are not engaging in or inciting violence, voluntary bodies enjoy the democratic right to organise and take action as they please. This is especially the case regarding voluntary organisations whose members vote on a decision – as has happened in many SUs in Britain in the past 10 years. Seeking to ban the actions of these SUs, where such actions are entirely legal, is undemocratic and censorious.

Moreover, banning boycotts of Israel on campus is likely to be counter-productive. It plays into the hands of those who insist that British officialdom already shares too close a friendship with the Israeli state. It also gives a glamour to those protesting against Israel that they do not necessarily deserve.

In being ‘silenced’ by legal diktat, those who oppose Israeli actions become martyrs against an unjust political machine, and seem to have something important to say; otherwise they would not have been shut down in the first place.

What is needed in the case of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement is more rigorous debate, not the shutting down of protest on grounds of vague appeals to local community purse-strings or, worse still, ‘cohesion’. If you do not approve of the movement for boycotting Israeli goods, join the debate. The worst thing that you can do to a movement you oppose is to ban or censor its proponents.

Image : Manos Simonides

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