Contrary to media claims, BDS activists are not “human rights” activists

Written by Aron White

Last week, Israel published a list of twenty organisations that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), whose leaders will not be allowed into Israel. This has led to a furious response from the BDS movement and its supporters, and unsurprisingly, the Guardian and Independent ran articles critical of the decision.

“Israel is increasing its pressure of human rights activists,” says an opinion piece in the Guardian, and similar sentiments were expressed in an article at the Independent, which suggested this would lead to wide-scale banning of human rights observers. However, these articles are misleading as they blur the distinction between BDS and other groups, and thus misrepresent the decision taken by the Israeli government.

The articles lack a very important piece of context: In Israel, tens of anti-government organisations work with complete freedom, documenting (what they perceive to be) flaws in Israeli policy – and Israel, as a free and open democracy, allows for this. The list published last week by the Israeli government does not impact the work of these organisations at all. So, an accurate analysis of the government decision would start with the question – why is BDS different? If Israel allows for anti-government organisations to operate within Israel, why is it banning people affiliated with BDS organisations?

The answer is made clear by seeing what BDS is, in its owns words. In 2005, the initial Palestinian call for BDS was signed by 160 organisations (for the record, many of these organisations, including the first organisation signed onto the call, are terrorist groups). 

Here is a paragraph from the call (emphasis added).

“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel.”

BDS is a political action group. It seems to use the tools of boycotts, divestment and sanctions to cause economic harm to Israel, as a way of forcing Israel to change its policies. This cannot be simplistically conflated with human rights activism or observation. Whereas human rights activism is about advocacy, raising public awareness and adding a voice to the debate, BDS is interested in none of that. BDS activists want to harms Israel’s economy and citizens to achieve political goals.  (Additionally, some of BDS’s most prominent leaders advocate the right to ‘armed resistance’ and oppose the very existence of a Jewish state.) 

It is entirely logical for Israel to not allow BDS activists into the country. It is not because they are documenting human rights violations – human rights organisations work freely in Israel. It is because they have made the choice to join a movement whose stated aim is to harm Israel. Why do such people have the right to enter the country they seek to harm? Israel’s policy is very clear – human rights activities, yes. BDS, no. This distinction is purposefully blurred by both the Guardian and the Independent, thus misrepresenting the government decision.

The Independent article is also flawed in another way, by mainstreaming a fringe and non-representative voice, and framing the story in terms of his views. In reporting about the BDS blacklist, the first two paragraphs give the basic details of the story, and then paragraphs three to six are dedicated to the views of Gary Spedding, before the views of Israeli government ministers are presented.

Anti-Israel activist Garry Spedding

This is bizarre, as Gary Spedding is not an academic, journalist or diplomat, and thus one would imagine that the statement from Israel’s government ministers might have come before Spedding’s. But more importantly, Spedding is an extreme and fringe character.

UK Media Watch has documented his extreme views and connections in detail here, but just to give a few examples – he believes Israel to be a “lunatic state,” and he supported the infamous view of Deborah Orr that the deal in which Israel released 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to return Gilad Shalit shows Israel is racist, because, he bizarrely concludes, Israel values a Jewish life more than a Palestinian one. He organised a violent protest in 2011, at which an Israeli lecturer was attacked and had to be rescued by security services. (This led to Mr Spedding himself being banned from entering Israel.) Spedding is an extreme, anti-Israeli figure – yet his speculations and assumptions about what this law means are presented without comment. This is not the first time the Independent has mainstreamed fringe, extreme voices – In July, UKMW wrote about an Independent article which quoted a fringe historian’s wild claim the King Solomon was actually an Egyptian Pharaoh. (That historian also believes Jesus was King of Edessa.) The Independent does not seem to be looking to present representative or mainstream voices; rather, it is presenting obscure, fringe, extreme voices, to push an anti-Israel agenda.

Israel’s BDS decision is based on the desire to protect the state from people whose stated aim is to cause its citizens harm. Presenting this decision as an attack on human rights, buttressed by the views of fringe extremists, is not an objective or accurate way of covering this story.


Aron White has a BSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of London (Lead College: LSE), and is a graduate of the Jewish Statesmanship Center in Jerusalem. His writings have been published at the Jerusalem Post, JNS, The Daily Caller and the Algemeiner.

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12 replies »

  1. Anybody supporting terrorists cannot claim to have anything whatsoever to do with human rights, unless they claim war crimes are a ‘human right’

    • No – they get their rights, including the right to a fair trial if they break the law. Accepting this is one area which makes Israel different from many of its enemies.

  2. It is not because they are documenting human rights violations – human rights organisations work freely in Israel.

    That should read – ‘It is not because they are documenting perceived human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians, not documenting perceived human rights violations by Palestinians against Palestinians – human rights organisations work freely in Israel.’ (But they don’t work freely in the PA controlled territories or Gaza.)

  3. So at the Independent, the word of just some dude with an opinion takes precedence over the word of the Israeli government concerning its own policies. I’m getting the feeling that perhaps the Independent might be just a teensy bit slanted.