CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Lubin, co-founder of Na’amod (British Jews Against Occupation), about the UK government’s proposed anti-boycott bill that would prevent public bodies from using divestment as a strategy to meet human rights responsibilities and obligations.
Na’amod is a movement of British Jews seeking to end its community’s support for apartheid and occupation and mobilising for dignity, freedom and democracy for all Israelis and Palestinians.
What are the goals and contents of the proposed anti-boycott bill?
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, also known as the anti-boycott bill, would ban public institutions from participating in boycotts or divesting from companies or countries that are committing, or are complicit in committing, human rights abuses when such actions would diverge from current British foreign policy. Although the bill would affect many international issues, such as the situation of the Uyghur minority in China or fossil fuel divestment, Israel is the only country explicitly mentioned in the bill, and most government statements so far have justified the bill as a tool to tackle anti-Israel sentiment and even antisemitism.
Further, the bill doesn’t differentiate between Israel proper and the Occupied Palestinian Territories – East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank – which conflates Israel’s sovereign territory with the land it occupies illegally under international law.
And domestically, this bill is just the latest UK government attempt to stifle civil liberties, following the Nationality and Borders Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act.
The Nationality and Borders Bill 2022 contains provisions about nationality, asylum, immigration, victims of slavery and human trafficking. The government claimed its goal was to save lives and stop people smuggling, but it introduces a treatment of refugees that is incompatible with international law.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, also known as the ‘policing bill’, expanded police access to private education and healthcare records and gave police sweeping powers, such as the authority to conduct ‘stop and searches’ without suspicion and criminalise trespassing. This expansion of powers further targets groups already disproportionately affected by over-policing, such as young Black men. Similarly, the trespassing provisions, which make ‘residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle’ a criminal offence, effectively criminalises Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
The Public Order Act 2023, also referred to as the anti-protest bill, stifled the right to protest by giving law enforcement agencies greater powers against protests deemed ‘disruptive’ such as those used by climate protesters.
The anti-boycott bill follows in the footsteps of these draconian pieces of legislation. It clearly does nothing to combat antisemitism. This claim is merely a fig leaf to shroud the government’s long-term campaign against civil rights in the UK.
What will be the consequences of the anti-boycott bill?
Public institutions – including councils and universities – will not be able to boycott or withdraw funds from countries or companies complicit in human rights violations. It will also bind their financial decisions to the policy of the government of the time and impede public sector workers’ right to freedom of expression.
In less tangible terms, the fact that the bill and rhetoric around it conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism will contribute to the chilling effect that makes rights advocates feel less able to criticise Israel for fear of being labelled antisemitic. In the long term, by setting up Jews and Jewish safety in opposition to other civil and human rights struggles, this bill will end up pitting minority communities against each other.
What is civil society, including your organisation, doing to prevent the bill’s approval?
Civil rights groups and multiple Jewish organisations, including Na’amod, have voiced their opposition to the anti-boycott bill. Na’amod started campaigning it in May 2022, when it was first announced in the Queen’s Speech and the legislative process began. Last October we protested against the bill at the Conservative Party Conference and have since been raising awareness through direct action and campaigning as a part of the Right to Boycott coalition, formed by trade unions, charities and faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning and solidarity organisations.
The coalition advocates for the right of public bodies to decide not to purchase or procure from, or invest in, companies involved in human rights abuses, abuses of workers’ rights, destruction of our planet, or any other harmful or illegal acts. We highlight the key historical role that boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns have played in applying economic, cultural and political pressure that has led to changes in abusive, discriminatory or illegal policies. This includes the bus boycotts of the US civil rights movement, the arms embargoes used against apartheid in South Africa and divestment from fossil fuel companies to advance climate action.
As the bill returns to the House of Commons this month and faces a series of amendments, we will continue to speak out and mobilise our community against it. We cannot lose such powerful tool for progressive change.
Civic space in the UK is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.