The first case to cite the UK government’s attempt to quash boycotts of Israel failed in the high court on Tuesday.
A group of anti-Palestinian lawyers brought a case in October against three local councils. They had passed motions supporting the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, or BDS.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign said in a statement that it was “victory for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign and for democracy.”
One pleased council leader called the ruling a “victory for free speech.”
Elected local governments in North Wales and the English city of Leicester passed the motions in October and November 2014.
They came months after Israel’s devastating summer attack on the Gaza Strip which killed more than 2,200 mostly civilian Palestinians, including at least 550 children.
The third motion, added to the case, was passed in 2010 by the council of the South Wales city of Swansea. It called on council leaders not to do business with Veolia, a French infrastructure company which was then deeply involved in Israel and its settlements.
Years of successful BDS campaigning forced Veolia to withdraw from Israel and the occupied West Bank, with the final step taken in August 2015.
“Ban” fails first test
The case was the first known attempt to rely on the so-called “BDS ban” which the UK government has attempted to impose on local government bodies.
The Conservative government issued new guidance in February aimed at stamping out boycotts of Israel.
The note was launched by a UK government minister in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and trailed in the media as “boycott ban.”
The document stated that public bodies such as local councils and some universities could face fines in civil court cases if they boycott signatories to a World Trade Organization agreement on purchasing. Israel is among the agreement’s signatories.
But Palestine solidarity campaigners argued that the document in reality still allowed local bodies to consider ethical procurement.
Activists immediately protested the move as an attack on freedom of speech and a dishonest attempt to intimidate human rights campaigners and local elected officials, calling it “smoke and mirrors.”
Development charity War on Want said “the boycott ban does not actually ban all boycotts.”
Jewish Human Rights Watch
The anti-Palestinian lawyers who brought the case argued that the councils had violated equalities law as well as the new anti-BDS guidance note.
High court judges Peregrine Simon and Julian Flaux disagreed and dismissed the case. The claimants on Tuesday called the ruling “disappointing.”
A registered company calling itself Jewish Human Rights Watch had brought the case. Despite its name, its main record is one of misrepresenting Palestine solidarity campaigners as “anti-Semitic” and attacking them with spurious lawsuits – “lawfare.”
It was established in 2014 by Manny Weiss.
According to Conservative justice minister Michael Gove, Weiss is one of his “great friends” and a “generous supporter” of the Henry Jackson Society – a hard-right Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian neoconservative group.
The judgment states that Jewish Human Rights Watch’s claim to have “consulted widely among the Jewish community before bringing the [legal] claim [to court] was not supported by any evidence.”
Freedom of speech
The judges also said that “criticism of Israel is not seen by all Jews in this country as an attack on their community, or, at least, not necessarily so.”
It emphasized that “the court should be vigilant to protect the right of freedom of expression.”
The judges also drew a distinction between elected councils passing motions, and executives implementing actual policy. The council executives tended to distance themselves from the motions, saying they had not been implemented in practice.
“No contracts or potential contracts were affected by the resolutions,” the judges concluded.
Jewish Human Rights Watch lawyers attempted to argue that for such motions against Israel to be legal, as a “minimum requirement … someone should raise in debate the impact of the resolution on the Jewish community.”
But the judges disagreed, saying that local elected representatives “do not (and should not) expect that their speeches will be scrutinized later in court … It would significantly inhibit debate if this were a requirement of the law.”
“In our view, the exercise of scrutinizing the debate simply highlighted the unreality of this part of the claimant’s case,” the judges concluded.