The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the largest British Palestinian solidarity group, successfully petitioned to reverse a 2016 ban preventing local governments divesting from companies involved in the Israeli occupation.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. A major decision by the UK Supreme Court protects the rights of organizations, including government organizations, to boycott, divest and sanction the State of Israel, even companies that support the exploitation of Palestine. In 2016, the British government issued severe guidelines banning government organizations and even local governments from participating in the BDS movement in any way.
Now this has impacted the Local Government Pension Scheme, the LGPS, which were obligated to invest the pension money of public service workers in companies that violate international law. Now, that decision was met in Britain with some resistance. Channel four of the BBC spoke with Rafeef Ziadah from the Palestine Society at SOAS University.
Rafeef Ziadah: I think it’s disgraceful that the British government has decided to intervene in this way, attacking local democracy and stopping councils from making ethical decisions around investments. I think the public has every right to be able to intervene in these issues, to talk to our elected officials and to have an impact on corporations that we disagree with, involved in arms trade, against sweatshop labor and for Palestinian rights as well.
Kim Brown: In response to the government decision at the time, world famous journalist Glenn Greenwald said that the attempt to ban BDS is the worst attack on freedom of speech in the West in contemporary times. So joining us to discuss this today is Ben Jamal. Ben is the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which is the largest UK civil society organization dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights. He joins us today from London. Ben, thank you so much for being here.
Ben Jamal: Nice to be here Kim.
Kim Brown: So, Ben, let’s go back to 2016 for a moment because I wanted to get your opinion about the British government’s decision to ban a boycott. We’ll get into, did they have the right to do so, in just a moment. But I wanted to get your take as to why they took this extraordinary step to put this down on paper.
Ben Jamal: Yeah. Well, I think, and we said this at the time, we had to really understand the government’s move as part of the global campaign that’s been going on for many years and which is right with the support of friendly allies amongst Western government, has sought to use what’s defined as law [inaudible 00:02:31] seeking to introduce laws that effectively criminalize BDS. So we’ve seen laws introduced in the United States, I think more than 20 States have such laws. We’ve seen them introduced in France, we’ve seen them introduced in Germany, is part of the wider campaign to de-legitimize the Palestine Solidarity Movement and de-legitimized activism for Palestine. And these regulations that the government introduced in the UK in 2016 with the first serious attempt we’d seen in the UK to do something similar and to attempt to prohibit action that was effectively… People making decisions not to invest money in companies that were complicit in Israel’s violations of international law to attempt to prohibit that sort of activity.
Kim Brown: So talk to us a little bit about the appeal. What exactly did PCS argue in front of the UK Supreme court and how did the government defend its decision to impose a ban on BDS, on local governments?
Ben Jamal: Well, our argument was framed around… First of all, the obligation as we saw it of public bodies not to be complicit in having their money invested, having the money of their pension scheme holders invested in companies that we’re complicit in international law violations complicit in the violation of human rights, it was about the rights of pension holders on how their money was going to be spent. That if they said, “I don’t want my pension invested in a company that’s helping build illegal settlements”, they should have that right. The grounds on which we had to fight the case were narrower. So the grounds on which we fought it and on which we won, were an argument about the fact that the government actually did not have the legal right to do what it was doing because pension law did not allow it to do that.
And also your question about how did the government justify what it was doing, I mean the regulations actually didn’t mention Israel or Palestine at all. They were framed in a way that said local government pension schemes cannot choose to divest in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns in any situation where the UK government itself has not imposed sanction. So didn’t specifically mention Israel, but in the whole of the rhetoric around the regulations, the government may clear this was about stopping BDS that was targeted, a company’s complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights. When the regulations were announced, they were actually announced, if I recall correctly in a press conference in Tel Aviv, so the minister responsible nine districts in Tel Aviv and make clear that these were part of their view about the illegitimacy of boycott and the way they framed that, why did they say that boycott was illegitimate? Because they use the line that, without stating it boldly, that boycott is inherently antisemitic, they used the line, “The boycott campaigns damage community cohesion.”
In other words, that boycott campaigns are in some way targeted at the Jewish community, which is inherently untrue. The BDS movement is run on anti-racist principles. It targets complicity and not identity. It targets companies and institutions and organizations that are directly supporting Israel’s violation of human rights.
Kim Brown: There’s a lot of conflation between criticism of the state of Israel and antisemitism, but the court ruled in favor of PCS. What reasons did they give behind their decision?
Ben Jamal: So as I said, we made the argument and the thrust of our campaign obviously was the ethical position, but we had to fight it. And the reason we took the cases, we were advised that we had good legal grounds and that the most likely chance of success was the government didn’t have the power. There’s a principle in UK law relies on a Latin phrase called ultra vires. It means you’re acting outside the boundaries of the powers you have. So the argument that was used in that one was the pension regulations, the pension law to which the government attached these regulations puts obligations upon pension companies to make decisions that are always in the benefit of their members to enhance proper investment decisions, et cetera. And the argument in that one was the government did not have the right to attach conditions to how they invest money.
That had nothing to do with any of those considerations. I thought they were to do with foreign policy positions. So that’s the basis on which we won. So it’s a very important victory. Obviously the legal principle was narrow, but as a line in the sand against the government attempts to introduce anti-bias law is very important. But we do have another battle on our hands because the government in the recent Queen’s Speech, so that’s the statement that a new government makes when it’s elected, about what laws it intends to bring in over the next parliament over the next five years. The government has announced that intends to introduce another law that would ban all public bodies from supporting BDS campaign. So we know I have to take the fuel from this victory and build the coalition, which we’re in the process of doing to oppose the next law that the government is trying to bring in.
Kim Brown: The court’s decision is important and interesting, not just for people in the UK, but really all over the world and here in the US various politicians such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo has said that they can’t control what people buy or choose not to buy, but state institutions can nevertheless ban BDS activities and choose to boycott any company or organization that practices BDS. So in a way, if it’s a public institutions don’t belong to the people, but are the private tools of politicians to promote a pro-Israel agenda, do you think that the decision of the UK Supreme Court will have an impact beyond the Britain’s borders?
Ben Jamal: I mean, I hope it does in two ways. One, I think it encourages campaigners across with huge numbers of messages coming into us from fellow solidarity activists around the world. We’ve had messages, numerous messages from Palestine. One that stuck with me is someone who described it as a historic day and I spoke to them and said, “Look, you might be able to play in this, anti-semitism is a narrow vitreous and important victory.” They said, “No”, they don’t understand. I’m a Palestinian myself, so I did understand we Palestinians don’t win many victories against the UK government. And of course there’s a whole history going back to the boat for a declaration that informs that statement. And they also said to us, we’re all walking foot taller today. So it’s important as an act of solidarity, is important as encouraging others, we can fight back against these laws where we have legal tools available to us.
They are something we should use as part of our campaigning as well as making the political case. They’re also though important in other ways. We hope the more victories we win like this is an international solidarity movement, the more we send a message to those trying to introduce these punishers laws that they will be opposed and that we can build political campaigns and public support and use the law ourselves where it’s available to us to oppose these attempts. They’re really about suppressing the Palestinian peoples rights to call for action by the international community to oppose their oppression. But individual’s rights to say, “Well, I wish to show solidarity for the Palestinian people and I want to take action to ensure that my country, my institutions, my local authority, my university is not complicit in supporting this injustice in how it spends its money, particularly where that money might belong to me. It might be my money. So they’re choosing to invest in illegal and immoral activities.”
Kim Brown: A major decision announced by the UK Supreme Court and a big victory for the BDS movement. Today we’ve been speaking with Ben Jamal. Ben is the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He’s been joining us today from London. Ben, we appreciate your time in speaking with us. Thank you so much.
Ben Jamal: Nice to be here Kim.
Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.