The UK Government’s decision to prevent local authorities and public-sector organisations from boycotting Israeli suppliers has been widely criticised. The British Cabinet Office stated that such boycotts ‘undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarising debate, weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism’. In an opening speech to a visiting UK trade delegation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: ‘I want to commend the British government for refusing to discriminate against Israel and Israelis and I commend you for standing up for the one and only true democracy in the Middle East’.
So on top of everything else, the government now wants to tell people who they can and cannot boycott. Of course, this is not to say that companies and individuals don’t have the option of not buying goods if they don’t want to but the principle is that anyone should be allowed to take a stance against a country, company or individual that they feel is unethical.
Local councils, universities and NHS trusts are publicly-funded. Imposing on them the ideals of the government and not the people is not an acceptable practice.
What is at stake here are two big issues. The first is that local councils, universities and NHS trusts risk severe penalties for boycotting unethical goods. It’s almost as if the government is looking for another way to generate income, grind down public services and suck up to foreign powers all in one fell swoop. The second is the attempt to prevent institutions from standing up to unethical behaviour goes against what the government repeatedly tells us it is standing up for.
Local councils, universities and NHS trusts are publicly-funded. Imposing on them the ideals of the government and not the people is not an acceptable practice. Politicians have connections with a great many private companies so there is a conflict of interest. The Conservative Friends of Israel describes itself as ‘one of the fastest growing political lobby groups’. Their annual business lunch speakers have included David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Earlier this month, a group of Israeli high-tech experts addressed Conservative MPs. There is also the matter of the UK government leasing Israeli drones for use in Afghanistan a few years ago.
The people of the United Kingdom are not alone in their boycott of Israeli goods. The Dutch pension fund, PGGM, announced a withdrawal of investment in Israel’s 5 largest banks. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sold its stake in G4S, the global security service company, due to the services provided by G4S to Israeli prisons. Other companies and countries have placed goods produced illegally on the West Bank on their banned lists. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) has been going on for over 10 years. This is not an unusual action. Whether or not you agree with the boycotting of Israeli goods, the point is that the government cannot proclaim to the world that we are a democracy, go to war with other countries over their lack of democracy and then ban a boycott that targets the undemocratic actions of an ally.
It seems a somewhat crazy idea that the United Kingdom could become an authoritarian state. Most people would laugh at the idea, certain in the knowledge that this would never happen in our land. After all, why would it happen here? We go to work, we pay our taxes and we collect our pensions. We don’t like to kick up too much of a fuss when the government doesn’t fulfil its election promises. In fact, we are so pre-occupied with the vast array of talent and reality shows on TV that we don’t really have time to take notice of most of our country’s infrastructure and publicly-owned assets being sold off. Our schools sell their land for housing development although we remain desperately short of enough housing in general. We seem to be short of land for our children to play on but as long as they have the essentials at home like a Playstation, Xbox, iPad, smart phone and large TV, all should be good providing they get 30 minutes a day outside walking amongst the concrete. The food-like products that are offered up should give us enough energy to get through the day but not much else. But should you ever think all is not well with the world, our right-wing media can reassure us that our troops are killing other people to preserve our freedoms because let’s be honest, at any moment one of ‘them’ could come along and stop you from enjoying your life.
Whether or not you agree with the boycotting of Israeli goods, the point is that the government cannot proclaim to the world that we are a democracy, go to war with other countries over their lack of democracy and then ban a boycott that targets the undemocratic actions of an ally.
Some may think this is a passing moment. But what if this isn’t? The government is getting away with telling publicly-funded institutions that they may not boycott unethical suppliers, that business must be done no matter who you are dealing with. To not follow those orders will result in severe financial penalties. Bit by bit, freedoms are being limited. We are threatened for not following the orders of a government who seek only to preserve their relationship with a country which has yet to be held accountable for war crimes, but probably never will.
Boycotting Israeli goods has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Religion is not a factor here. It doesn’t polarise debate, it fuels debate. It brings up reasons why the boycott is taking place. NHS trusts, local authorities and universities aren’t doing this for the hell of it. They feel compelled to take action where our government won’t. And instead of listening, our government carries on disregarding its people.
Featured image © Amit Shabi