In its determination to assist Israel in silencing criticism, the British government betrays the values of freedom and tolerance that it claims to see as fundamental. This article, written by a member of the Artists for Palestine UK collective, charts the resulting pattern of attacks on the rights of Israel’s critics in Britain, from local councils to academics and arts organisations.
2016 began with ringing declarations about British liberty. David Cameron’s New Year message to the nation contrasted the freedom and tolerance of ‘our way of life’ with the ‘poisonous narrative of grievance and resentment’ laid out by ‘murderous extremists’, seething with hatred for the west.
These are claims that have come to sound more hollow with every month that passes. Domestically, the Prevent strategy operationalises the defence of ‘freedom’ with an apparatus of reporting and repression which extends across schools, universities and the NHS – some NHS trusts have made it mandatory for staff to attend Prevent workshops. In its foreign policy, Cameron’s government holds firmly to alliances with states which are deeply committed to the oppression of the populations they rule over: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, to name only the most prominent. Turkey, a NATO member, uses airstrikes against its Kurdish population without reaction from the defenders of freedom. Saudi Arabia kills its opponents, and is met only with an expression of ‘disappointment’ from a British junior minister.
But it is Israel that has the strongest influence over events in Britain itself. Israel has long chosen occupation over peace, and this is a choice that Britain, like other western governments, has been willing to accept. That acceptance, in itself, marks the limitations of Cameron’s rhetoric of freedom. But recently it has become plain that Britain is willing to go further, moving from acceptance of a steadily tightening occupation, to active collusion in Israel’s attempts to suppress opposition to it, so that aspects of policy, law-making and governance in Britain come to be shaped in the light of Israel’s interests and diplomatic initiatives.
Nowhere is this clearer than around issues of boycott, divestment and sanctions. As Israeli settlements spread in ever greater numbers across the West Bank and as military and settler violence against the Palestinians continues, the movement for the economic and cultural boycott of Israel has achieved increasing success. 2015 saw the transnational companies Veolia and Orange cutting their involvement with Israel, and support on campuses and among trade unions growing.
In response to this broad and non-violent movement, with its antecedents in the boycott of apartheid South Africa, Israel has raised the alarm. For the most part, popular opinion in Europe has not been impressed: Israel’s record of violence undermines the case it tries to make. But it is a different story among the political classes. Seeing BDS as an ‘existential threat’, Israel has urged politicians in the west to legislate against boycott, and to use the resources of threat and persuasion to cut off support for the Palestinian cause. This is a call that British Conservatives, like French socialists, have heeded.
In 2014, Sajid Javid, then Secretary of State for Culture, boasted of how – regardless of the arms length principle that is supposed to govern the relationship between ministers and the funding of particular arts organisations – he had threatened the Tricycle Theatre with heavy financial penalties if it did not give support to a film festival part-funded by the Israeli state. In 2015, Eric Pickles, former Communities Minister, led other Conservatives in working assiduously to cancel an academic conference on the legal status of the State of Israel. 2016 has seen a new front opened, as the Government, apparently at the prompting of the Israeli Embassy, has acted to deter local councils, and any other publically-funded body, from supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaigns. Issued on 17th February, the Procurement Policy Note 01/16, ‘Ensuring compliance with wider international obligations when letting public contracts’ is generally framed but specifically interpreted. No particular country is mentioned when the obligations integral to free trade agreements are underlined, but ministers could not have made it clearer that it is support for BDS that is in their sights. Why else would cabinet office minister Matthew Hancock fly to Tel Aviv to announce this new procurement policy?
Speaking from the platform he shared with Benjamin Netanyahu, Hancock said that Britain was introducing the measure ‘because we believe in an open and free trade and we believe that discrimination is not appropriate and should be stood up to’. Netanyahu in turn commended the British government for standing up ‘for the one and only true democracy in the Middle East’.
It was an exchange crammed with ironies and double standards. Israel has blockaded Gaza since 2007, but will now itself be protected from boycott. Britain, which has for more than twenty years taken the lead in organising sanctions against selected states across the Middle East, without regard for domestic consequences, is now persuaded that boycotts can damage community cohesion and integration at home.
Underlying these contradictions, however, is a consistent orientation. Market and state work together to enforce the principle that politics should offer no large space for popular involvement. On one side, political and ethical debate should bow to the imperative of free trade and the axiom that the ‘interests of British business’ should come first: to say ‘we would prefer not to’ becomes impermissible. On the other, decision-making, especially on matters of foreign policy, becomes the sole prerogative of the central state: local government, like other public institutions, has no part to play.
What are we to conclude from these measures announced to the British people from Tel Aviv? We could see them as having a double significance. First, they are one part of a many-sided effort to weaken the BDS movement. They belong alongside J.K.Rowling’s call for ‘cultural engagement’ with Israel, and the unceasing and largely unargued assertion that BDS is a modern form of antisemitism. Secondly, alongside the Prevent strategy, they constitute a new kind of repressive intervention, which cast a chill over political life, restricting it to ever narrower spheres of action, and linking dissent to extremism and ultimately to terrorism.
Here is a set of accusations and an apparatus of control which contradict and undermine the professions of support for ‘freedom and tolerance’ with which David Cameron greeted the New Year. They come together to form a discourse of smear and guilt by imaginary association that we can expect to fill the political air for years to come. Liberty, Mme Roland once noted, has had many crimes committed in its name. The Conservatives’ closure of a space for political action, at the behest of one of its authoritarian allies, adds another to the list.