Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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My Lords, I congratulate the Government on showing moral courage in pursuing the Bill’s aim despite all the baseless accusations thrown at it. It is supported by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies.

In a broader context, the Bill is a timely and necessary stand against anti-Semitism. In a narrower context, the Bill does not harm free speech or protest, as has been alleged, because it does not prevent individuals expressing their opinions. It is directed against damaging action, procurement and investment. There are plenty of exceptions: for example, environmental misconduct and modern slavery. The BDS movement, which is the target of the Bill, has been ineffective—thankfully—but serves to fuel hatred in periods such as this one when there are peaks of anti-Semitic incidents in the public realm.

I would set aside the parallel with South Africa. In South Africa, action was to achieve—one might say—regime change and internal matters. At the heart of BDS, as expressed by some of its leaders, is the end of Israel as a state. The true nature of the ill that the Bill combats can be seen from the briefings sent against it by opponents. They focus, of course, on Israel, or they interpret it as prohibiting action designed to prevent climate change, which is not the case, as it is state activity that the Bill is targeting. It is not targeting freedom of speech, which is not within the ambit of the Bill, which is about action. Indeed, one might even argue that there are too many exceptions and loopholes. After all, when you consider how much free speech there is about Israel and Palestine, there is hardly any topic that is more discussed. Incidentally, I must congratulate the universities pension scheme for keeping its investments in Israel, despite protests by the University and College Union, which has a track record of being against Jews and Israel.

The most unpleasant opposition to the Bill came from a group of churches—not, I should say, the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, but what might be called smaller communities. They include Embrace the Middle East, the Iona Community, the Methodist Church, Quakers in Britain, Sabeel-Kairos and a few others. They call on right reverend Prelates in this House to oppose the Bill in its entirety, because it would, in their view, prevent local councils and other bodies considering ethical issues in the conduct of a foreign state when making procurement or investment decisions. They then go on to say that Israel should not be singled out for special protection against boycott campaigns, giving it unique rights in UK law.

This would be ironic if it were not so uninformed. For centuries, the church has singled out Jews for special treatment. It is entirely because Israel is being singled out for boycott that the Bill is before us. There are no boycotts and no collective church action in relation to Saudi Arabian oil, or Chinese products, which are probably in use by many public bodies and churches. There are no protests or marches against Iran and its horrendous abuse of women and use of the death penalty; no persecution of Chinese students on campus because of their Government’s actions; and no marches against Syria, where the conflict has killed and displaced millions. Note that tens of thousands, maybe millions, of Christians have been persecuted and killed in Nigeria and in the Congo. There is no concern about goods coming from occupied northern Cyprus. The religious hostility to Israel goes back long before the current hostilities in the Middle East. Some of it is virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Israel, denies the Jewish historical connection to Israel in theological terms, and advocates supersession of Christianity over Judaism.

The actions of these religious bodies in supporting boycott bring to mind the action of the church over many centuries in restricting Jewish trades and professions and isolating Jewish communities. It is high time that this focus on Israel by these churches should lead to their considering their own historic responsibility for the perilous situation of the world Jewish community and its desperate search for safety in one tiny country. It looks like anti-Semitism, no matter how much the BDS supporters claim to be targeting only Israel and not Jews, because the thin line between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel has been worn down almost to non-existence by virtue of the protests we have seen on our streets and in our universities in recent weeks. I am sure the right reverend Prelates in this House will have no hesitation in rejecting the call from these minor churches. By so rejecting them, they would place the Church of England in a position to foster good relations, work towards peace, and distance itself from the anti-Jewish actions of the past.

Christian BDS supporters should be embarrassed by those who are campaigning with them: for example, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hamas. The BDS campaign is negative and, fortunately, has not harmed Israel’s activities and economy. Churches should instead help Palestinians build democratic institutions and invest in their economy, and urge them to accept peace offers. Christian-Jewish understanding would be gravely weakened if churches insisted on continuing to boycott.

This Bill is a moral guide. It will do something to tone down the loathing of Israel we see expressed all around us, targeting Jewish communities—hence, the blurring of the line between anti-government sentiment and anti-Jewish sentiment. Russian and Chinese residents here have never had to face the same hatred. Jewish people need one safe haven. This House should consider the responsibility of the way that Britain ended the mandate all those years ago, leading in part to some of the trouble we see today.

The boycott proponents and the hate-filled marches remind us of why the Bill is still necessary. Boycotts do nothing to assist Palestinians; they simply ally the boycotters with the anti-Semites and the authorities who, over the centuries, have tried to impound and constrain Jewish communities, not least in the many Middle East countries from which the Jews were expelled in the 20th century. The Government have my whole- hearted support, and I wish this Bill—with amendments, no doubt—a safe and swift passage.