UK Embraces the Boycott

Britain is a springboard and hub for anti-Israel activity.

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In this part of the world, where Israel seems to be regularly singled out as the world’s bête noire, recent developments in Britain have given even veteran pro- Zionism watchers a sense of alarm. Even the most optimistic observers of what is loosely referred to as the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) movement, are worried about this summer’s activities.
In late June, the Methodist Church of Britain, the fourth largest Christian denomination in the UK with 70 million members worldwide, voted to boycott Israeli-produced goods and services from the West Bank because of Israel’s “illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.”
The one-sided characterization of the Israel- Palestine conflict is based on the platform published by the World Council of Churches, which formally espoused a boycott by all its affiliates in 2009 and took its bearings from the Kairos Palestine Document that emerged from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. The Kairos declaration brands the occupation as “a sin against God and humanity” and calls on companies, countries, religious institutions, NGOs and individuals “to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation.”
The central theme of the Methodist document is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the consequence of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the end of the occupation is the key to solving all animosity in the Mideast.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews, which included the heads of the Masorti, Progressive, and Reform movements, as well as Orthodox Jewry’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, all intervened in an effort to have the text altered – to no avail.
The Jewish Chronicle, calling the decision “Methodist shame,” was fierce in its condemnation: “With their vote, the Methodists have, de facto, declared themselves to be in formal hostility to the Jews.” The Chronicle also noted that “both the debate and the report were a compendium of classic anti-Semitic tropes,” railing against the influence of the “pro-Israel lobby in the US.” Moreover, the document “describes a history of Zionism and Israel so deformed that it could almost have been written by the Hamas leadership. There is not a word of criticism of Hamas, Hizballah or any group or nation other than Israel.”
WHILE PERHAPS THE MOST disconcerting, the vote by the Methodist Church of Britain is one in a long series of anti-Israel events taking place in the UK.
As the Methodists were approving their latest document, a UK judge found seven activists who caused £180,000 damage to an arms factory that sells arms to Israel outside Brighton not guilty on the “excusable” grounds that they had taken their action against the company following Operation Cast Lead, out of conviction that war crimes were being committed by Israel against the Palestinians.
The judge in the case highlighted the friend of the court testimony by Caroline Lucas, the newly elected Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, that “all democratic paths had been exhausted” before the activists embarked on their action.
The judgment led an exasperated Robin Shepherd, director of European affairs for the London-based Henry Jackson Society, to write on his website, “Bigotry against the Jewish state is now so entrenched in contemporary British society that juries have begun to acquit criminals merely if they can show that they acted against Israeli interests. No other defense is necessary.” The judgment followed threats by pro-Palestinian groups to bring charges against leading Israeli figures for “war crimes.”
In early June, the University and Colleges Union (UCU), Britain’s largest higher education union, voted to support the BDS campaign against Israel and sever ties with the Histadrut, Israel’s national labor union. At its annual conference in Manchester, the 120,000 member union also pledged to urge other trade unions and bodies to follow suit.
Just weeks later, the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, confirmed a complete boycott of Israeli goods and services and divestment from Israeli companies. The motion, which passed unanimously, accuses Israel of “a policy of ethnic cleansing,” “the enforced bankruptcy of the Palestinian Authority” and “the continued building of the apartheid wall.”
On numerous UK-based websites, such as the London-based anti-poverty charity War on Want (WoW), the history of modern Israel is depicted as created from a policy of “ethnic cleansing” by “driving the Palestinians from the land,” and that the continued policies of occupation amount to a form of “slow genocide,” enacted by the “apartheid wall,” militarily imposed “collective punishment” and violations of international law.
Every other Saturday, without fail, some 40 anti-Israel protesters affiliated with WoW turn up at midday for a noisy two-hour demonstration outside the London store of Ahava, cosmetics which are produced from mud from the Dead Sea, some of which is in the West Bank.
Demonstrators chant “Dead Sea mud, Palestinian blood” and call on shoppers to boycott Ahava. At similar protests, backed by the London-based Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, which coordinates all BDS campaigns throughout the UK, demonstrators regularly dump Israeli produce into food carts.
The cultural boycotting of Israel is another part of this trend, although it has been less successful and unequivocal. The sudden decision by British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello to cancel his concerts in Israel, saying that his conscience demanded that he not give support to “conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security” is just one example of this star-studded trend. While Costello’s action is the first open endorsement of the boycott movement by an A-list artist in protest of Israel’s policies, he followed in the footsteps of acclaimed British director Ken Loach, who in January called for the boycott of Israeli movies at international film festivals and cultural events. “The massacres and state terrorism in Gaza make the showcasing of Israeli films in various sections of international film festivals unacceptable,” he said at the time.
For now, the artists’ boycott of Israel is somewhat on the margins. Numerous bands and singers – from Rihanna, an R&B singer, to Placebo, a UK band – have decided to play concerts in Israel, and more are expected to go ahead with their scheduled gigs this summer. A writers’ festival in Jerusalem was also studded with big names from around the world.
Most defiant of all was Sir Elton John. Before his visit, an anti-Zionist coalition of academics known as the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine publicly urged the singer to cancel his performance, claiming, “Political or not political, when you stand up on that stage in Tel Aviv, you line yourself up with a racist state.” But during his sold-out concert in Tel Aviv in June, Elton John took a swipe at artists like Costello and declared, “Musicians spread love and peace, and bring people together… We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.”
Yet, the sheer volume of anti-Israel activity forces the questions: Should the British Isles be considered the hub of BDS global activity? And is any of this a typically British phenomenon or are there trends that are part of a global pattern?
“MORE THAN ANY OTHER country in the world, it is the UK that has embraced the Palestinian call for academic, trade union, media, medical, architectural and cultural boycotts of Israel,” says Ronnie Fraser, founder and chair of the Academic Friends of Israel, who has written extensively on the subject.
According to its own sources, BDS refers to an international economic campaign that began in July 2005, when 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations called for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel. As a strategic idea, the BDS is based on the characterization of Israel as “the new South Africa,” an apartheid cause célèbre. According to its umbrella body in the UK, run by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), “Apartheid was weakened by a similar international movement of solidarity that succeeded in branding South Africa as a pariah state.”
In fact, the BDS as a strategy against Israel first surfaced in 2001 at the UN’s World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, where Israel was castigated, among other accusations, as a racist, apartheid state committing genocide against the Palestinian nation. From there the boycott idea percolated among international pro- Palestinian, left-wing circles and NGOs.
According to Fraser, the BDS movement’s close ties to the PSC means that it has been committed from the beginning to the boycott of Israeli goods and cultural and sporting events in Israel. It has also forged ties with Britain’s far Left and British unions, who in turn publicize the BSD’s cause. Says Fraser, “All the major UK trade unions are affiliated with the PSC and several of them actively promote PSC policies and literature.”
Most analysts believe that any understanding of ideological and programmatic origins of the BDS movement in Britain must start with British universities, where the idea of boycott caught on and was provided with structure and coherence by the trade union movement. Its “big bang” occurred a little over six months after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City when two British academics, Steven Rose (who is Jewish) and his wife, Hilary Rose, along with 123 other mostly British academics, published an open letter in The Guardian calling for a European Union “moratorium” on funding for grants and research contracts for Israeli universities and comparing Israel to South Africa.
In 2005, the academic boycott movement gained traction, when the 40,000 member Association of Union Teachers (AUT) voted to impose a boycott of Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. While international pressure forced a reversal a month after the vote was taken, the value of forging an alliance between intellectuals and unionists under an academic banner all but guaranteed newer and bigger initiatives would follow.
The AUT, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and more than 700 academics supported the action and, within days, academics from all over the world had signed the petition. Similar petitions were launched in France and Australia and within weeks the idea of “an academic boycott of Israel” went viral.
International momentum began to build. Less than two months after its publication, the petition won a boost by another British initiative known as the “Mona Baker affair.” Baker, an Egyptian-born professor of Translation Studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology enthusiastically backed the Roses’ petition, turned words into action and sacked two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of the journals “The Translator” and the “Translation Study Abstract” that Baker and her husband own and edit, sparking international furor.
In May 2006, the British academia-trade union alliance tried again when NAFTHE renewed its call for a boycott. This time it was Britain’s National Union of Journalists who raised the stakes by demanding that the British government impose sanctions and a boycott of Israeli goods, based on the model of past trade union struggles against apartheid South Africa.
While both boycott calls caused a public outcry and were vigorously opposed as an assault on academic freedom and journalistic integrity, the sandstorm of debate and controversy stimulated more calls – this time from English writers, musicians, and artists – to institute a cultural boycott of Israel. At the same time, NATFHE and AUT joined forces to form a new union, University College Union (UCU) in 2007, which promptly put forward to its 120,000 members two resolutions calling for the boycott of Israel.
BUT THIS TIME THE RESPONSE was fierce and coordinated. The British Jewish community’s Stop the Boycott Movement, coordinated by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Britain Israel Communications Center, went into action, mounting a public relations and inner academia campaign, appealing to common sense and winning the hearts and minds of a majority of British newspapers.
Their efforts were given a significant boost with the help of American Attorney Alan Dershowitz who, together with leading UK Attorney Anthony Julius (see Anthony Julius on Anti-Semitism – page 34) filed a legal opinion stating that the boycott was discriminatory and therefore illegal.
“We’re in a standoff position today,” says David Hirsh, a sociologist at the University of London, Kings College, who with fellow academic John Pike created the first academiabased, left-wing “fight back” effort against the British boycott movement. Since then, their Engage website ( has become an intellectual rallying point for debate and activism in opposing the BDS movement.
Hirsch tells The Report that “ultimately this is a battle of ideas. I believe Engage has helped forge the current stalemate. Engage has made it impossible for UCU to actually institute a boycott.
The writers who contribute to Engage have been able to show that over the years the important debate is not about the boycott – the real fight is about what constitutes anti- Semitism. Boycotts fall into the latter category.”
Former MP Lorna Fitzsimmons, chief executive of the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), which led the media campaign against the UCU boycott drive, says that the high-profile public campaign was crucial to the defeat of these initiatives.
“We had to make a very big counternoise to say loud and clear – and to have people on record as saying – there is no legitimacy to the idea of Israel as an apartheid state and that the media and the politicians were on our side. It was a way of drawing a line in the sand as to what is legitimate and what is not,” she tells The Report.
Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of NGO Monitor, a right-wing oriented watchdog organization that monitors Israeli and international NGOs, was in the UK in July speaking to academics, government officials and British Jews about the dangers and long-term impact of global BDS activities. Steinberg tells The Report that Britain is, indeed, a springboard for the proliferation of the BDS movement, and attributes this to three factors.
First, notes Steinberg, the sheer number of non-governmental organizations with headquarters in London that view the UK as the hub of their European operations is remarkable.
“There is a concentration of NGOs in the UK: Amnesty International, Oxfam, Christian Aid and dozens of others… They are powerful actors and they disseminate an ideology in their campaigns around the world.” Second, he continues, their ideas are warmly received by what he views as the UK’s left-leaning media, especially the BBC and The Guardian, which provide a lens for viewing events in the Middle East.
“While they are not direct advocates of BDS,” says Steinberg, “the media effectively engage in the same demonization of Israel as the BDS movement by painting Palestinians as victims, Israelis as perpetrators and omitting any mention of Hamas’s violent and ideological commitment to the elimination of Israel.”
The third source is academia. “It was at British universities where the first organized, broad-based boycott began… while American campaigns have failed, Britain’s academic boycotts continue to have an impact,” says Steinberg.
With regard to the Methodist Church’s decision, Steinberg says, “England may be conceived as a ‘post-Christian’ society, but the influences of their churches – particularly their international connections like Christian Aid – demonstrate that the churches can be places where anti-Israel activism thrives.” That may be one reason why, following its decision, the Board of Deputies severed all formal ties with the Methodist Church.
THEIR NOISY PROFILE ASIDE, HAS the BDS movement achieved anything for its supporters? Arieh Kovler, who serves as coordinator for the Fair Play Campaign Group, which operates out of the Board of Deputies and serves as coordinating information hub for all antiboycott groups and initiatives in the UK and which helped steer the Stop the Boycott Campaign, tells The Report that Britain’s embrace of boycotts is more about perception than reality. “To date, there have been no actual boycotts carried out,” he notes, crediting the British Jewish community’s 2007 Stop the Boycott campaign for successfully branding BDS as prejudicial and discriminatory.
Author and Daily Mail economics editor Alex Brummer says that the BDS has had negligible impact. “The track record of economic sanctions is not particularly good. To work, they have to be in place for several years. It’s questionable as to whether they have a real impact on living standards, and in many cases, the country being sanctioned ends up becoming more resilient than ever.”
Israel, he notes, benefits from free trade agreements with both the European Union and the United States. This means that since Israel’s main trade is in technology, a market that is in continual growth, the economic impact of any boycott or divestment move will be nil. “It’s mostly a form of gesture politics,” he says.
That explains, says Kovler, why there seems to be so much latter-day agitprop activity in which, in typical British fashion, groups like War on Want have taken to street theater and actions like Israeli fruit-dumping scenes in British grocery stores. “It’s important to note that two or three years ago, they thought that they were painting a mass movement on the model of apartheid. That hasn’t happened.
Instead we’ve seen a small number of people carrying out direct action and achieving their aims through intimidation, rather than by winning the debate,” he concludes.
But the implications of the BDS movement may not be restricted to the economic sphere and may permeate the theological front as well.
In this regard, the response by the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council to the Methodist Church document is unusually strong. “The Methodist Conference has swallowed hook, line and sinker a report full of basic historical inaccuracies, deliberate misrepresentations and distortions of Jewish theology and Israeli policy,” the statement they issued reads.
Calling the report the product of a “biased process,” “extremely serious and damaging,” the statement accuses the Methodist Church of “having abused the goodwill of the Jewish community, which tried to engage with this issue, only to find that our efforts were treated as an unwelcome distraction.” Moreover, the statement continues, the report “fails to acknowledge that Israel is at the root of the identity of Jews and of Judaism, and an expression of Jewish spiritual, national and emotional aspirations. Zionism cannot simply be ruled as illegitimate in the way that the conference has purported to do. This smacks of breathtaking insensitivity, as crass as it is misinformed.
That this position should now form the basis of Methodist Church policy should cause the conference to hang its head in shame, just as surely as it will cause the enemies of peace and reconciliation to cheer from the sidelines.”
And Chief Rabbi Sacks warned in the Jewish Chronicle that the implications of the Methodist decision will “reverberate across the hitherto harmonious relationship between the faith communities in the UK.”
Insiders who followed the build-up to the Methodist conference note that anti-Zionist and anti-Israel activists who support a blanket boycott of Israel were the main sources of the document, including Israeli-born academics Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, both now based in Britain; Jerusalem-based Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions; Anglican vicar Stephen Sizer; and Beirutbased journalist Robert Fisk.
WILL ALL THESE BOYCOTT activities on the academic, theological and cultural fronts eventually seep into the political realm? For Robin Shepherd, of the Henry Jackson Society and author of “Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel,” tells The Report that they already have. He cites British historian Andrew Roberts’ assertion that despite the Royal Family’s 250 overseas visits to 129 countries, the Foreign Office has effectively banned the Royal Family from an official visit to Israel. And last year, Roberts told guests at a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Israel-Diaspora Trust that “as an act of delegitimization of Israel, this effective boycott is quite as serious as other similar acts, such as the academic boycott.”
“A year ago we saw Britain had imposed a partial arms embargo on Israel, following the Cast Lead offensive in the Gaza Strip,” says Shepherd, referring to the UK government’s revocation of export licenses for spare parts for Sa’ar 4.5 missile boats of the type that were used in the war.
“Many of us who have been closely watching developments in Europe in recent years have consoled ourselves that Europe’s governing classes have been largely unaffected by the kind of media and NGO-driven hysteria against the Jewish state with which we are all too familiar. An important line may now be being breached. We may be entering an entirely new phase,” asserts Shepherd.
At the same time, it is important to take note of countervailing developments. During the same week as the Methodist conference, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) at its world congress in Vancouver, which represents unions in more than 150 countries, pledged its “universal recognition” of Israel’s right to exist. It also rejected “the extremist policies of Hamas,” prompting the founding president of the UK-based Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP) to declare it “a blow to the supporters of Hamas who have tried hard to isolate and demonize Israel within the trade union movement.”
In the meantime, anti-boycott watchers can continue to express their opposition to the BDS onslaught through coordinated efforts such as the “BUYcott” campaign initiated by the Fairplay Campaign Group of the Board of Deputies, which encourages British Jews to purchase Israeli products via regular updates on Facebook and Twitter.
BICOM’s Fitzsimmons notes that any campaign that seeks to bring the public to realize that boycotts are both ineffectual and damaging must be carefully coordinated.
“You need to make clear to everyday people that there is a line that simply cannot be crossed,” she says.