Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, even, or perhaps especially, when we disagree.

I want to focus on Clause 3(7), which provides in effect that a future Minister seeking to permit public bodies to boycott Israel would have to do so by way of primary legislation and not secondary legislation. The question has been asked: why is Israel treated differently by being singled out in the Bill? The short answer is that Israel is already treated differently and singled out—by international institutions and by too many public bodies here in the UK. That differential treatment and singling out has real effects, not only on the State of Israel but—and this is my focus—on civil society in the UK.

This Bill puts Israel into a special category because Israel is put by others, both internationally and nationally, into a special category. I will look first at this internationally. Last year, the United Nations General Assembly condemned Israel 14 times. The rest of the world put together: seven. Since 2015, the score stands at Israel 140, the whole of the rest of the world put together, 68. The UN Human Rights Council has a standing agenda item, item 7, which is focused on Israel —and only on Israel. This is the same UN Human Rights Council that, just two days after the 7 October massacre, held a minute’s silence to mourn, to quote from its own website,

“the loss of innocent lives in the occupied Palestinian territory and elsewhere”.

“Elsewhere”? For 2,000 years, the Jewish people had nowhere. Now, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council, they have an “elsewhere”. All of this is not because Israel is wicked, let alone uniquely wicked. It is because, internationally, Israel is treated differently and singled out.

Secondly, Israel is also treated differently and singled out by public bodies here in the UK. In 2020, the Welsh Government brought out a new national procurement note singling out Israel—and only Israel—for potential sanctions. A decade earlier, West Dunbartonshire Council adopted a policy of boycotting Israeli—and only Israeli—goods, including even books printed in Israel. So the sermons of Jesus printed in totalitarian China were permitted, but they were banned if they were printed in the place where he actually delivered them.

A number of English councils implemented BDS against Israeli—and only Israeli—products, including Leicester in 2014 and Lancaster in 2021. In 2014, Birmingham City Council threatened not to renew a contract with Veolia because of its activity in the West Bank. Perhaps the now insolvent Birmingham City Council should have focused rather less on the West Bank and more on its own bank.

My third point is that it is not only the fact that Israel is treated differently. Anti-Israel resolutions and boycotts have a different and dramatic effect on civil society. The correlation is clear and unambiguous. When Israel is targeted, it ends up with attacks on Jews. I am not saying that all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism—although a lot of it is, especially when Israel, and only Israel, is singled out for condemnation and boycott. You can support Israel but oppose its present Government, as do many of my friends in Israel. The Opposition Benches in this House demonstrate that you can critique a Government but support the state.

But let us be clear: when you chant “From the river to the sea”, you are not critiquing the Israeli Government; you are calling for the destruction of Israel. We are increasingly seeing anti-Israel rhetoric blurring into demonising and attacking Jews. “Zionists” is being used as a code word for Jews.

It is a code word, because who are these Zionists? The overwhelming majority of Jews, both in the UK and around the world, are Zionists because of our history, ancient and modern. We have prayed for, and facing, the land of Israel for thousands of years. We know the cost in Jewish lives from not having a State of Israel and the price paid in lives for having that state. Many of us have family there, in what is now the world’s largest Jewish community. When Israel is singled out, the inevitable effect is that Jews, regardless of their passports or politics, are also singled out in commerce, culture and education.

In commerce, when Sainsbury’s removed kosher food from its shelves after giving in to anti-Israel protesters, it was Jews who could not buy food—a scene repeated in the Republic of Ireland only last week.

In culture, two weeks ago, a Jewish member of the audience at the Soho Theatre was sworn at by Paul Currie, an anti-Semite masquerading as a comic, because he would not stand in respect when a Palestinian flag was unveiled on stage. Much of the rest of the audience joined in the chanting against him. Another London theatre cancelled an event hosted by a UK Jewish charity raising money for Israeli students, because the staff refused to come into work.

In education, the Jewish chaplain at Leeds University is now in hiding with his family, because he has been targeted by protesters, who also daubed anti-Israel slogans on the Jewish society building. When students marched through Birmingham University with a banner reading “Zionists off our campus”, what they meant, in practice, was “No Jews here”. The vast majority of Jewish students, like the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community, believe in an independent Jewish state. That is what Zionism is. If, like His Majesty’s Government, you support a two-state solution, which calls for a safe and secure Israel alongside a Palestinian state, you are a Zionist too.

All this is a problem for Jews, but it is a tragedy for everyone else. A society that permits anti-Semitism is a society suffering from a terminal illness. That is an iron rule of history: anti-Semitism destroys any society that harbours it.

Baroness Kennedy of Shaws Portrait Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab)
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I just want to read the noble Lord a quotation from the Israeli National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir. He says that to encourage the exodus of Gaza’s inhabitants and the influx of Israeli settlers to the Gaza Strip would be a “correct, just, moral … solution”. When it comes to people speaking in language that is exclusionary and discriminatory against the other side, I am afraid that some of it comes very strongly from extreme right-wing Jewish settlers.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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I loathe Itamar Ben-Gvir and his rhetoric and want to see that sort of rhetoric out of Israel and out of everywhere. But let us be real: when people opposed apartheid, they were opposing a policy of the South African Government. What BDS wants is not to change the policy of Israel, but to change the existence of Israel by destroying it.

The Bill singles out Israel because Israel is always singled out. It is quite right, therefore, that, if a future Minister wants to change that policy to allow people to boycott Israel and give succour to the world’s oldest hatred, he or she should have to account for their actions at the Dispatch Box.

I have no doubt that improvements can be made to the Bill. I look forward to working with many others in doing so, especially on the international law point, but, for the reasons that I have given, I give the Bill my full support.