Liberal Western democracies, which claim to uphold the fundamental right to freedom of expression and seek to stem the wave of right-wing populism, continue to collude with apartheid Israel, aligned lobby groups and media outlets in the suppression of the BDS movement. In Europe, attacks on the nonviolent, anti-racist BDS movement for Palestinian rights are especially severe in the UK, France and Germany, where political and cultural elites have failed to break with their colonial legacy.
The hypocrisy and speed with which Western-dominated entities boycotted, expelled or otherwise sanctioned Russia and ordinary Russians, only days after its invasion of Ukraine, sends a clearly racist message to Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghanis and many others, that our lives and rights as people of color do not count.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005. By then, it had become all too clear that, irrespective of the hundreds of UN resolutions that condemned Israel’s colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal, powerful Western states were unwilling to adopt the measures necessary to ensure that Israel will respect international law and the UN-recognized rights of the Palestinian people.
Palestinian civil society’s foundational BDS Call of 2005 was inspired by the global boycott movement that had helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa. It calls on civil society organizations and people of conscience worldwide, including conscientious Israelis, to carry out non-violent boycotts and divestment initiatives, and to build pressure on states for embargoes and sanctions against Israel, until Israel respects the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and fully complies with its obligations under international law by:
- Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands (i.e., the Palestinian and Syrian territory conquered in the 1967 war) and dismantling its illegal Wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem;
- Recognizing the fundamental right of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, i.e., abolishing its system of institutionalized racial discrimination; and,
- Respecting, protecting and promoting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
Led by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the largest coalition of Palestinian labor, women’s and professional unions, political parties, popular committees and networks of refugees, BDS has grown in the course of the past 17 years into a worldwide movement with impact, not only in Europe but also in the United States and the Global South. Grassroots BDS pressure, for example, has resulted in divestment from companies complicit in Israel’s illegal, colonial settlement enterprise by US churches and European pension funds. Reputational damage and the loss of valuable contracts compelled companies such as Veolia, SodaStream, G4S and HP to terminate or significantly downscale their business involvement in Israel’s oppression and exploitation of Palestinians. Among others, BDS pressure on international organizations also contributed to the publication of a first UN database listing the names of more than 100 companies that facilitate Israel’s illegal settlement activity. Most importantly, by educating about Israel’s regime of apartheid, settler colonialism and military occupation; with the annual Israeli Apartheid Week; and by activating support of the Global South, the BDS movement has played a key role in placing Israeli apartheid on the agenda of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and UN experts, and in mobilizing the collective push for UN investigation and sanctions against apartheid.
Efforts to criminalize the anti-apartheid movement
Apartheid Israel declared BDS a “strategic threat” in 2015. Fearing isolation and the loss of diplomatic, economic and military support, Israeli governments and affiliated lobby groups have since then invested vast amounts of financial resources in attempts to criminalize and suppress the movement not only at home, but in particular in North America and Europe.
Unsurprisingly, right wing conservatives, who regularly complain about ‘cancel culture’ especially but not only in the United States, while rarely facing consequences for anti-Black racism, sexisms and homophobia, have been staunch allies of apartheid Israel’s attempts to ‘cancel’ the BDS movement for Palestinian rights.
At present, moreover, one cannot but be appalled by the stark contrast between Europe’s response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the response of the same European actors to Israel’s practices of apartheid, settler colonialism and occupation that have oppressed Palestinians for more than seven decades. In a recent statement, the Palestinian BDS National Committee explained in this regard:
In addition to the hypocrisy, the speed with which all these Western-dominated entities boycotted, expelled or otherwise sanctioned Russia and ordinary Russians, only days after its invasion of Ukraine, sends a clearly racist message to Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghanis and many others, that our lives and rights as people of color do not count.
The current hysterical, discriminatory Western boycotts imposed on ordinary Russians based on their identity or political opinions are also antithetical to the BDS movement’s ethical principles.
As a nonviolent, anti-racist human rights movement, BDS has consistently targeted corporations and institutions based on their complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights. Unlike the West’s discriminatory boycotts and sanctions against ordinary Russians, the BDS movement does not target anyone because of their national or ethnic identity, or origin from a certain country. Moreover, BDS does not target ordinary individuals, even if affiliated to – as opposed to representing – complicit entities.
Documentation compiled by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), which provides legal defense for Palestine solidarity activists in Europe, shows that most attacks are based on false accusations of antisemitism. These false accusations are usually derived from the so-called IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA), which suggests that even legitimate political criticism of the State of Israel should be considered an expression of antisemitism. Although presented since 2016 as a tool of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) for the fight against the real existing antisemitism, the IHRA-WDA has long been exposed and critiqued as an instrument crafted by Zionist lobby organizations, such as the American Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, with the aim of shielding apartheid Israel from accountability. Nevertheless, the European Union has been a strong promoter and most EU member states, including Slovakia, have adopted the flawed definition.
Some European governments and parliaments then use the IHRA-WDA as a source of policy decisions that restrict activism for Palestinian rights, and – although not anchored in legislation – these policies are treated as if they were legally binding. Incidents of attacks on BDS are the result of the enforcement of these IHRA-WDA based policies by public and private actors.
The following are illustrative examples of such restrictive policies and incidents of attacks in the UK and Germany, which were kindly provided by the ELSC from its archives:
UK – Policy
Already in October 2015, Tory ministers had announced new rules to stop local councils’ support of the BDS movement, including ethical divestment and non-procurement from companies involved Israel’s human rights abuses. Following its adoption of the IHRA-WDA in 2016, the government issued binding ministerial guidance to the Local Government Pensions Scheme, including a provision that administrators of local government pension funds must “not pursue policies contrary to UK foreign or defense policy”. When this was about to be struck down by the Supreme Court, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced in September 2019 that councils „should not be wasting time and taxpayer’s money pursuing their own foreign policies.“ Writing to all councils, he insisted that they adopt the IHRA definition “at the earliest opportunity” and use it in “all appropriate occasions, including in disciplinary proceedings.” He also threatened that councils that refuse to adopt the IHRA-WDA will be publicly listed and should not expect to receive public funds.
In 2019, the current conservative UK Government under Boris Johnson committed in addition to pass a law for “banning public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”.
The UK government has also repeatedly threatened universities to adopt the IHRA-WDA or have funding cut off. In February 2017, the Minister of Higher Education, Gavin Williamson, wrote in a letter to the Chief Executive of Universities in the UK (UUK) that he expects the IHRA definition to be “understood and acted upon at all times, and that this will include events such as those that might take place under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid’”. In October 2020, Williamson warned university vice-chancellors that the Office for Students, the authority regulating higher education in England, could be asked to take action including suspending ‘funding streams’, if universities failed to adopt the IHRA definition by December.
UK – Examples of attacks
Universities cancelling Israeli Apartheid Week events on campus
In February 2017, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) cancelled an Israeli Apartheid Week event entitled “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS”, citing the event’s alleged incompatibility with the IHRA-WDA. The student organizers learned about the cancellation from the media, instead of being notified by the University. Israel-advocacy groups StandWithUs, North West Friends of Israel and Sussex Friends of Israel had campaigned online against the event.
In the same month, Students for Justice in Palestine had planned an Israeli Apartheid Week event at the University College of London (UCL). The University received a complaint from Academic Friends of Israel, challenging the event by referring to the IHRA-WDA that had been adopted by the government. The University cancelled the event, stating procedural reasons.
Manchester University’s censorship of a historian and Holocaust survivor
As part of the 2017 Israeli Apartheid Week, Marika Sherwood, a historian and Holocaust survivor, was due to give a talk at Manchester University entitled: “You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me”. Earlier on, Israeli diplomats had intervened with University representatives against the event, arguing that Sherwood’s talk would violate the IHRA definition. The University responded by imposing new and restrictive conditions: Academics chosen to chair the talk were replaced by University appointees; publicity was limited to staff and students; the student organizers were informed that the talk would be recorded, and the original title of Sherwood’s talk had to be changed. Sherwood rejected the accusation that the title was antisemitic, explaining “I can’t say I’m a Palestinian, but my experiences as a child are not dissimilar to what Palestinian children are experiencing now”.
Disciplinary proceedings against academics and students for alleged antisemitism
In 2021 alone, the ELSC defended more than 20 academics and students in disciplinary proceedings, which were opened by British universities in response to false accusations of antisemitic statements in academic writings and social media postings about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and the dispute about antisemitism in the British Labour Party. In all of these incidents, universities opened formal disciplinary proceedings without prior conversations with the concerned academics and students. The universities also made clear that the IHRA definition would be used to determine whether their conduct was antisemitic. Legal assistance provided by the ELSC in cooperation with British lawyers resulted in the dismissal of all complaints. Nevertheless, these disciplinary proceedings caused severe emotional distress and damage to the reputation of the falsely accused academics and students.
Germany – Policy
In September 2017, the German Federal Government, then a coalition of the conservative CDU-CSU and the social democratic SPD, endorsed the IHRA-WDA. In the same year, the municipal councils of the German cities of Frankfurt and Munich already used the IHRA definition to justify resolutions entitled “No space for antisemitism – actively opposing BDS” and “Against all forms of antisemitism – no cooperation with the anti-Semitic BDS movement”. Based on the lie that the BDS movement would call for Nazi-like boycotts of Jews and the state of Israel, these resolutions call for withholding event facilities and funding from anyone supporting BDS.
By 2019, at least ten major German cities and three German country (Laender) parliaments had adopted similar anti-BDS resolutions. They were followed on 17 May 2019 by the infamous anti-BDS resolution of Germany’s Federal Parliament (Bundestag), which triggered strong protest not only from Palestinians, but also from progressive Jewish and Israel scholars and UN human rights experts. Adopted, with the support of almost all political parties, the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution decides to withhold rooms and facilities under federal administration from organizations and groups that support BDS. It also calls on the federal government to give no support to events of the BDS movement and groups supporting its aims, and to abstain from funding projects that promote the boycott of Israel or give active support to the BDS movement.
It is important to emphasize that none of these German anti-BDS resolutions are laws. Rather, they are expressions of the opinion of parliaments at the municipal, country and federal levels, which are not legally binding. However, as resolutions that have the support of the overwhelming majority of Germany’s political and cultural elites, they are widely seen as authoritative – and acted upon – at the societal level.
Germany – Examples of attacks
Munich City Museum denying use of a room for a public debate about the City’s anti-BDS resolution
In April 2018, Klaus Ried, a German citizen living in Munich, asked the City Museum of Munich to provide him a room for a public debate on the topic “How far does Munich restrict the right to freedom of expression? – The City Council’s [anti-BDS] resolution of 13 December 2017 and its consequences”. The City Museum rejected Ried’s request, arguing that, as a municipal entity, it was bound by the resolution in question, and that this would also exclude the use of municipal facilities for a discussion of the resolution. Ried’s challenge of the decision before the Administrative Court of Munich failed. In the appeal before the higher Bavarian Administrative Court, the judges overruled the lower Court’s decision, clarifying that the denial of access to public facilities for BDS-related events, on the sole ground that statements of unwanted opinions are expected, constitutes a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The Federal Administrative Court upheld this judgment in January 2022.
Caritas Munich cancelling a contract for the use of a hall by the Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group
In August 2019, the Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group (JPDG) in Munich requested to rent a conference room from the Caritas Association for a public event with a German journalist of the magazine Der Spiegel. Caritas initially signed the rental contract but terminated it subsequently in response to protest from an influential Bavarian Israel-lobbyist. Explaining its decision, Caritas stated that it considered itself bound by the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution, that the organizers are part of the BDS movement and should not, therefore, be offered any support. JPDG took the case to the Regional Court of Munich. The Court ruled that the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution is not a law and does not justify an infringement of the right to freedom of expression. Hence, it instructed Caritas to respect the lease agreement and rent its conference room to the JPDG for the planned event.
The City of Bonn excluding from a Festival associations promoting Palestinian culture and rights
In the summer of 2019, the City of Bonn informed the Palestinian Community-Bonn, the German-Palestinian Women Association and the German-Palestinian Society that they were banned from participating in the 2019 edition of its festival “Vielfalt” based on its anti-BDS resolution. In their case, the Administrative Court of Cologne ruled that the City’s ban violates the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and to equality. The Court also explained that, “The [anti-BDS] motions …are political resolutions or expressions of political will”, and that, “These motions alone cannot justify, from any legal perspective, the restriction of an existing legal right.” Hence, the Court instructed the City to admit the associations to the Festival.
German Bank closing the account of Berlin-based Jewish organization for alleged antisemitism
The Jewish Voice for Just Peace in Near East (JS) is a Berlin-based society that had its bank account in the German Bank für Sozialwirtschaft. Due a smear campaign of Israel-lobby groups against the JS and the Bank accusing both of antisemitism as defined by the IHRA-WDA, the Bank closed JS’s account for the first time in 2016. Following a dialogue, the Bank was satisfied that JS’ support of the BDS movement does not challenge the existence of the State of Israel and it re-opened the account. Accused of antisemitism for re-opening the JS account, and confronted with the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution, the Bank sought in 2019 an expert opinion on whether or not the Jewish organization should be considered antisemitic. When the commissioned German expert eventually refused to investigate the Jewish group for antisemitism, the Bank demanded a formal statement in which JS would distance itself from the BDS movement. Since JS refused to provide such a statement, the Bank decided to close JS’ bank account permanently as of 31 December 2019.
German officials seeking to disinvite African scholar Achille Mbembe from the Ruhrtriennale festival for alleged antisemitism
The Ruhrtriennale is an art and music festival sponsored by the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW). Prof. Achille Mbembe, a renowned African scholar of post-colonialism, was invited to give the opening speech at the 2020 Festival. Referring to the German anti-BDS resolutions, a member of the NRW Parliament and the Federal Antisemitism Commissioner launched a public controversy about whether Prof. Mbembe should be disinvited because of “antisemitic statements in his writings” and support of the BDS movement. Ultimately, Prof. Mbembe did not give the opening speech because the 2020 edition of the Festival was cancelled due to the pandemic. The incident triggered numerous statements of opposition and protest against political censorship of artists and scholars.
None of these attacks, however, can deter the global BDS movement for freedom, justice and equality of the Palestinian people, which – as confirmed by a growing number of judicial decisions – is protected under the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Ironically, moreover, the current flood of boycotts and sanctions of Western-dominated entities against Russia demolishes all the excuses propagated by apartheid Israel and its European apologists to thwart the Palestinian calls for accountability and justice.
Ingrid Jaradat is an independent analyst of Middle East policy, human rights and international law living in Palestine; she is a member of the board of the European Legal Support Center.