Councils taken to High Court over "anti-Semitic" Israel boycotts

Three councils have been taken to the High Court over their decision to pass motions calling for trade embargoes against Israel or boycotts of some Israeli goods.

Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) applied for a judicial review of motions passed by Leicester City Council, Swansea City Council and Gwynedd Council, arguing they are "principally about discriminating against the Jewish community".

The councils have denied the claims and have not commented due to the ongoing legal proceedings.

Swansea passed a non-binding motion in June 2010 when the council was considering entering into contracts with Veolia, company that was also part of a consortium building a railway linking Israel to illegal settlements in East Jerusalem.

It stated that the UN "not only does not recognise Israel's annexation and occupation of East Jerusalem, but has repeatedly stated its view that the Israeli settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank contravene international law, and it has demanded that Israeli settlement activities and occupation should not be supported". The motion called on the council's leader and chief executive to "support the position of the UN in regards to the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, so long as to do so would not be in breach of any relevant legislation" and to "note that council does not wish to do business with any company in breach of international law of UN obligations or demands".

JHRW has claimed the council reneged on an earlier agreement to rescind the motion.

In October 2014, Gwynedd passed a motion calling for a trade embargo with Israel following "attacks by the Israeli state on the territory of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip". In addition, it confirmed the council's decision to "stop investing in Israel or in that country's establishments". The council said it was emphasised during the debate that the proposed motion condemned the Israeli state and not the Jewish religion.

Leicester passed a resolution in November 2014 to "boycott any produce originating from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank until such time as it complies with international law and withdraws from the Palestinian Occupied Territories". The council has the motion is not a boycott of Israel and applies specifically to its procurement policy and produce originating from settlements in the West Bank.  

The hearing at the High Court is expected to last two days.

Robert Festenstein, a solicitor representing JHRW, said: "We would like to see the motions quashed. I don't understand why they would pass it in the first place.

"I mean, they wouldn't pass a motion saying something derogatory about women, so why would they about Jews?"

But anti-poverty charity War on Want called the legal action a "shameful attack" on councils ensuring their policies are in line with international law.

Senior campaigner Ryvka Barnard said: "Local councils following that advice and voting to distance themselves from illegal and human rights abusing settlements should not be standing trial over their decision to act responsibly and morally and in accordance with international law. These sham charges undermine the rights of local authorities to act in respect of human rights and to reflect the values of the people who elected them."

The Cabinet Office has previously warned councils against passing their own procurement embargoes outside official Government sanctions, arguing they "undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarising debate, weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism".

It published new guidance in February on letting public contracts, noting that any boycott of Israeli suppliers would breach the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement.

Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock said: "We need to challenge and prevent these divisive town hall boycotts. The new guidance on procurement, combined with changes we are making to how pension pots can be invested, will help prevent damaging and counterproductive local foreign policies undermining our national security."