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Film sounds alarm on ‘authoritarian’ attacks on the right to boycott as government seeks new anti-BDS laws

by Bethany Rielly, home affairs reporter

A TIMELY new film is sounding the alarm about “authoritarian” attacks on the right to boycott, as the government seeks to quietly introduce anti-BDS laws in Britain. 

Last month, MPs passed an amendment to the Public Service Pensions Bill to prohibit public bodies from engaging in boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns. 

Award-winning filmmaker Julia Bacha, whose new documentary film Boycott details the impact of anti-BDS laws in the United States on freedom of expression, has warned moves to replicate similar legislation in Britain would have “tremendously harmful consequences.” 

Speaking ahead of a screening of the documentary at the Human Rights Watch film festival at the Barbican this weekend, the director told the Morning Star that British MPs must stand up for the right to boycott. 

The film, produced by Palestine-Israel focused company Just Vision, shines a light on the insidiousness of legislation passed at an alarming rate across the US with little media attention or public awareness of the issue. 

Since 2014, 33 states have introduced policies or laws that punish US citizens, organisations or businesses for engaging with or calling for boycotts of Israel.

“They were really being passed under the radar with very little scrutiny and we thought it was very important to lift that story up,” Ms Bacha said.

The documentary focuses on the personal stories of three US citizens who decided to challenge these laws on the basis that they violated their first amendment rights. 

One of the protagonists, Bahia Amawi, a US-Palestinian speech therapist, lost her contract after refusing to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel. 

“I could not stay quiet and just go on with my life while I know that this law is going to make it OK to continue this kind of oppression against the Palestinians,” she says in the film. 

Ms Bacha warned the laws also pose a dangerous precedent. Texas legislators have since used anti-BDS law as a template to pass Bills preventing firms that boycott fossil fuels and firearms from securing state contracts. 

“We thought we were going to finish the film with this still being a theory and hypothesis,” she said. “But now it’s the reality.”

The documentary also investigates where the Bills have come from, and uncovers a network of evangelical Christian and Israeli lobby groups, allegedly bankrolled by the Israeli government. 

The importance of preserving the right to boycott is particularly pressing in the current context of the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ms Bacha said. 

“If anyone had any doubt about the importance of boycott, divestment and sanctions, they really shouldn’t have any doubts anymore, about how precious those tools are in a situation where you cannot go to war,” she said. 

“We need to be able to decide those things in the public forum and have a dialogue and debate about these issues, and for you to take away that tool from your citizens feels, to be honest, incredibly authoritarian.”

Anti-BDS laws have also been passed in Germany while in Britain, the Commons waved through Tory MP Robert Jenrick’s amendment on February 22, with Labour MPs ordered to abstain. 

If the Bill is passed, local pension funds would be prohibited from  making investment decisions that “conflict with the UK’s foreign and defence policy.”

Warning against the moves, Ms Bacha added: “Conservatives — who officially have been the biggest defenders of freedom of speech — should really think about their principles here.

“And progressives and the Labour Party need to really think about where they historically want to stand on this and what are we taking away from our ability to advocate for social and political change in the future by not taking a stand now.” 

The screening of Boycott at the Barbican on March 20 at 3pm will be followed by a Q&A with Ms Bacha, and is available to stream across Britain and Ireland from March 17-25 https://ff.hrw.org/film/boycott

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