I was recently invited to visit Sheffield Synagogue. I was keen to show my support to the local Jewish community following what has been a truly unsettling few months for British Jews. I was given the warmest welcome imaginable, but was shocked and angered to hear stories of the antisemitic harassment and intimidation they have been subjected to in recent months.
They also told me about the experiences of friends and family members across the country. Young Jewish students who had been subjected to Heil Hitler salutes. Children who have stopped going to school out of safety fears.
The recent and shameful increase in antisemitic incidents in the UK is clearly linked to the horrific October 7th massacre in Israel perpetrated by Hamas, and the consequent devastating military action in Gaza.
But this antisemitism hasn’t come from nowhere.
There has not been some overnight transition from universal respect for the Jewish community to blatant public displays of antisemitism such as those we’ve seen on the streets of London. Or indeed in my home city of Sheffield, where in October the Israeli flag was torn down from the roof of the town hall, antisemitic chants were heard on the streets and there was even a roadblock set up by supporters of Hamas, intimidating drivers and asking for money.
BDS is not some cosy do-gooding human rights organisation
The situation in the Middle East has of course been the proximal cause of these events, but we cannot discount the actions of many of our public institutions who have been tacitly — and sometimes flagrantly — rolling the pitch for anti semites for years.
To use a local example, in 2019, Sheffield City Council passed a motion regarding its position on Palestine. This had nothing to do with discharging its duties to ratepayers and everything to do with signalling its views on Israel.
But this is entry level stuff compared to other public institutions, for example Birmingham City Council which threatened not to renew a contract with French multinational company Veolia due to its operations in the West Bank. Or West Dunbartonshire Council which adopted a boycott on the purchase of Israeli goods, including books printed in Israel. Lothian Pension Fund, the second largest local authority pension fund in Scotland with 84,000 members and £8bn of assets, announced in 2019 that it will divest from Israeli Bank Hapoalim. I could go on. ·
Many of these actions have been inspired by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which since 2005 urges the boycott of goods, services and investments associated with Israel in order to weaken the world’s only Jewish state economically and reputationally until it ends its ‘oppression of Palestinians’.
BDS is not some cosy do-gooding human rights organisation: behind it stand hardliners, extremists and even terror groups like Hamas, which is affiliated to the organising committee. BDS founder Omar Barghouti has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Israel’s right to exist as a state of the Jewish people and in a 2003 article called for a “one-state solution… where, by definition Jews will be a minority”.
BDS is an antisemitic campaign directed at ending Israel as a Jewish state and as such no taxpayer-funded body should support it. That’s why the Conservative Party promised in its 2019 Manifesto to legislate to prevent local authorities from engaging in BDS activities and this week, the ‘BDS Bill’ (formally the Economic Activities of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill) reached its final stages in the House of Commons.
Councils and other public bodies that use their position and taxpayer’s money to go rogue on foreign policy are overstepping their mandate
However, the Bill has received significant opposition from the Labour Party and others who claim that it is unnecessary, inappropriate, that the timing is insensitive and that it restricts free speech.
But these criticisms are unfounded.
Firstly it is absolutely necessary to intervene when public bodies — who act on behalf of all of us — choose to support anti Israel or anti Jewish campaigns.
Our public institutions have significant influence over public attitudes; the policies of public bodies signal to the public what society approves of. For example, we all know that smoking, and drink driving, and dropping litter are not approved of, in large part because our public institutions — be they schools, local councils, NHS trusts — promote campaigns to signal what kind of behaviour is acceptable.
And what public bodies are signalling through official support for the BDS campaign is that Israel is not approved of. In fact Israel – and by extension Jewish people — seem to be actively disapproved of by some public authorities.
This inevitably affects our culture, and of course it emboldens those with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views. Successive studies have shown that the single best statistical predictor of anti-Jewish hostility is the amount of BDS activity.
That is why this Bill is so necessary — if we are determined to protect British Jews, we must prevent public bodies from behaving in a way that actively encourages anti-semitism to flourish.
The BDS Bill is also an entirely appropriate piece of legislation for the Westminster Government to enact.
Foreign policy and trade policy must be reserved for central Government, which requires the strongest possible powers available to it in order to stand up to malign actors across the world.
We do need the power to impose sanctions — like those against Russia — but these must be implemented in a strategic way. When local authorities overstep their democratic mandate to to create their own foreign policies that are opposed to the Government’s position, it undermines national foreign policy.
Local authorities have particular local responsibilities for which their members are elected. When my constituents go to the ballot box at local elections, they vote for the candidate who they think is the best person to ensure regular bin collections, well-maintained roads or social care; they are not voting for councillors’ views on foreign policy, trade policy or for that matter income tax rates, because these are nationally reserved issues for the Westminster Government.
We cannot allow the oldest prejudice in the world to rear its ugly head once more
Councils and other public bodies that use their position and taxpayer’s money to go rogue on foreign policy are overstepping their mandate. It is reasonable and appropriate for Parliament to legislate to prevent this.
This is hardly an extreme position — there are lots of restrictions on what public bodies may or may not do.
One of the fiercest criticisms of the Bill from the Opposition benches is that it will restrict free speech. But this is a disingenuous claim to make. Individuals — be they councillors or university vice chancellors — will remain free as private individuals to voice their opinions publicly on Israel, BDS or on any other matter. What they may not do is use their official role on a public body to support such campaigns. This is not unreasonable or unprecedented — teachers for example are not allowed to be politically partisan in the classroom, but they are free to join political parties, campaign and even stand for election as private individuals.
But even some of those who support the Bill have rebuked the Government for the timing of the legislation, which had its Report Stage in the House of Commons just two weeks after the atrocities of October 7th. Although The Bill had already begun its passage through parliament in July 2023 it is true that the Government could have chosen to delay the next stages in light of the Hamas attacks. But I believe they were right to press ahead.
Firstly, the protests in London and other cities following 7th October made it impossible for anyone to deny the extent of antisemitism in the UK, thus increasing popular support for the legislation from those who were appalled at what they were witnessing. Secondly, it was exactly the right time to prove to British Jews with action and not just words that the UK government takes their concerns seriously.
So this Bill is necessary, appropriate and proportionate. But it is shocking that it is necessary to have to use Government legislation to attempt to reverse a culture of casual antisemitism within our public institutions.
When I first heard about the Holocaust as a child I remember being appalled by the scale of the evil acts committed. I was shocked by what happened to the Jews, and that it could have been allowed to happen in a society not all that different from our own.
As an adult I have visited Yad Vashem, and Auschwitz, and the forests in Poland where thousands upon thousands of Jews — including children — were murdered in cold blood by Nazi soldiers. Because they were Jews.
No one who walks away from these memorials can be in any doubt about the potential consequences of antisemitism.
But one thing I felt sure of before October 7th is that this would never happen again. Surely the world — the United Kingdom at least — is alive to the consequences of anti Jewish attitudes, to the importance of not tolerating antisemitism, of the need for Israel, an Israel that has the same right to exist and to defend itself as any other sovereign nation?
But now I’m not so convinced that we have learned the lessons of the 1930s.
Polling shows shocking levels of support for Hamas amongst young people in the United States and here in the UK. This is certainly being driven by social media, but it is also being fostered by educational institutions and the normalisation — and sometimes promotion— by public bodies of anti-Israel and antisemitic views.
We cannot allow the oldest prejudice in the world to rear its ugly head once more. That’s why I support this Bill and why, sadly, it is needed.
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