UK MPs vote to advance anti-boycott bill in move to quell BDS

UK MPs vote to advance anti-boycott bill in move to quell BDS
Ismail Patel, chair of British pro-Palestine group Friends of Al-Aqsa, said the UK government's anti-boycott bill intends to 'stifle valid criticism of Israel's apartheid policies'.
5 min read
05 July, 2023
Around 30 demonstrators protested outside the UK parliament ahead of the vote on the anti-boycott bill on Monday [Reem Khabbazy/The New Arab]

British MPs voted on Monday to advance the government's controversial bill targeting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel.

The vote to give the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill a second reading in the House of Commons – an early step in the legislative process – was carried by 268 votes to 70.

During the accompanying debate, Conservative Communities Secretary Michael Gove – whose bill would also impact boycotts of countries besides Israel – said the Palestinian-led BDS movement "leads directly… to antisemitic incidents".

"Where the BDS campaign has been adopted and endorsed there have, unfortunately, been real community-cohesion problems," he added.

"We have seen an increase in antisemitic events following on from the activities of the BDS movement, including supermarkets removing kosher products from their shelves following specific protests."

The New Arab has contacted the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the coalition that leads the boycott movement against Israel, for comment.

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'Question for every member of this house'

During Monday's debate, Gove said he agreed with groups including Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Leadership Council, which have supported his anti-boycott bill, as well as the French and German governments who "have taken action against the BDS movement". He did not specify the action he was referring to, but Germany's parliament voted through a non-binding motion condemning the movement as antisemitic in 2019.

"The question for every member of this house is whether they stand with us against antisemitism or not," Gove added in a remark challenged by his Labour Party counterpart, Lisa Nandy.

She said: "We should not in any sense suggest that members, of all parties in this house, who have expressed profound reservations about the bill in front of us can be deemed antisemitic.

"They are not. They are participating in democracy and giving voice to real concerns."

Nandy herself raised concerns about the government's proposed legislation, including by saying it would "significantly" impact the Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region, members of a largely Muslim ethnic group facing genocide.

However, the senior Labour politician also said: "We recognise the problem which [Gove] says the bill is designed to tackle."


Ismail Patel, chair of British pro-Palestine group Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA), said that Monday's vote on the proposed legislation, which is often called the anti-boycott or anti-BDS bill, undermines the values of free speech and human rights advocacy in the UK.

"The second reading of this legislation has revealed its true intention: to stifle valid criticism of Israel's apartheid policies and intimidate those who support the peaceful BDS movement against injustice. This was evident from Gove's conflation of opposing the 'anti-BDS bill' with antisemitism," he told The New Arab on Tuesday.

"It is disheartening that MPs on both sides failed to protect the principles of freedom and justice."

The New Arab has contacted Gove's Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for comment.

Around 30 protesters, including from FOA, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Justice for Palestinians, demonstrated outside parliament ahead of the vote.

Labour amendment defeated

There were 10 Labour MPs who voted against giving the anti-boycott bill a second reading. At least two others who would have done the same were "paired", meaning they were absent from voting but in a way that didn't impact the overall result. One of these lawmakers, Zarah Sultana, said she "firmly opposes" the bill but Monday was her sister's wedding.

Save these exceptions, Labour – which for years was dogged by antisemitism accusations under its previous leadership – abstained on the second reading after an amendment proposed by the party was defeated.

Labour's amendment would have called on the government to put forth alternative proposals and stopped the bill from getting its second reading.

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The anti-boycott bill is aimed at blocking public bodies, including councils, from taking BDS actions against Israel, though would also impact campaigns against other countries and territories.

Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are, however, mentioned explicitly in the proposed legislation.

It comes in a provision that would make it harder for future exceptions to be made allowing boycotts of Israel. This measure wouldn't apply to any other country or territory.

'Flawed premise'

Scottish National Party MP Tommy Sheppard said: "The government has sought to place the question of Israel right at the heart of this legislation and of their argument.

"It is fundamentally based on a flawed premise: that criticism of the Israeli government or of Israeli state policies is in itself antisemitic. That is wrong."

Crispin Blunt, one of two Conservative parliamentarians to vote against the bill on Monday, responded to fellow Tory MP Stephen Crabb, who criticised the BDS movement for singling Israel out.

"BDS is a Palestinian-led movement, so it is not remotely surprising that its attention centres on the policies of Israel, which is in illegal occupation of Palestinian territory," Blunt said.

What's next?

Having received its second reading, the anti-boycott bill will now proceed to the House of Commons committee stage where it will be considered in depth and could be amended.

Two further stages, including the crucial debate and vote on the bill's third reading, will then remain before it moves to the House of Lords to begin passage through the UK parliament's upper house.

Notable lawmakers to vote against the bill's second reading include former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, Labour's former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran, the UK's first British Palestinian MP.

They were joined by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, now an independent MP, who called the proposed legislation "truly appalling".