Local councils are being accused in the High Court of unlawfully imposing boycotts on Israeli goods produced in “illegal” Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) told two judges the councils are failing to have due regard “to the impact of their actions on the Jewish community”.
The campaign group is seeking judicial review against three authorities – Leicester City Council, Swansea City Council and Gwynedd Council.
The organisation is asking Lord Justice Simon and Mr Justice Flaux, sitting in London, to rule the “anti-Semitic” boycotts unlawful because they breach the Local Government Act 1988 and the Equality Act 2010.
The organisation has likened the “divisive” town hall action to the boycott of Jewish shops in 1930s Nazi Germany.
The charity War on Want has condemned the JHRW legal challenge as “shameful”.
Senior campaigner Ryvka Barnard said: “It’s shameful that local councils are being attacked for ensuring their policies are in line with international and UK law.
“The illegal settlements are a part of the systematic abuses of international law and human rights committed by Israel against the Palestinians.”
Robert Palmer, appearing for JHRW, rejected as “wholly misconceived” the suggestion that the organisation had come to court “seeking to silence the expression of political opinion and stifle criticism of Israel”.
Mr Palmer told the judges at the start of a two-day hearing that the case concerned the legal constraints on councils exercising their powers and duties as local authorities.
The JHRW claims were not about “the lawfulness or otherwise – or even the moral rights and wrongs – of any Israeli action in the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem as the case may be”.
Nor were they about about “the freedom of expression of any councillor or group of councillors, or anyone else for that matter, to express their views on the legality of these matters, or the moral rights and wrongs”.
But they were about about the lawfulness of the way the councils in the case were discharging their local authority functions “and the failure of these local authorities to have due regard to the impact of their actions upon the Jewish community”.
The Labour-led Leicester council approved its motion in favour of a boycott in November 2014.
The motion began by stating: “Leicester City Council recognises the right of the state ofIsrael to exist in peace and free from incursion, but condemns the government of Israel for its continuing illegal occupation of Palestine’s East Jerusalem and the West Bank; for its continuing blockade of Gaza; and the illegal appropriation of land in the West Bank and settlement buildings.”
The council has since explained: “The motion has never been a boycott of Israel by Leicester and is not an attack on the Jewish people. It relates specifically to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”
In written submissions to the High Court, the local authority’s legal team states that the motion represents a “non-binding resolution” of the council which has no effect on the local authority’s procurement of goods and services.
They add the resolution is “no more than a collective expression of the councillors. Such expression is protected by both the common law and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
They say the grounds of the JHRW challenge are misconceived, and the challenge itself is a “hostile” bid to suppress the council’s expression of solidarity “with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and criticism of Israel for its treatment of them”.
A Swansea Council spokesman said: “The council has never boycotted Israeli goods and has no intention of doing so. For legal reasons, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Gwynedd Council made clear that its own boycott was aimed at condemning the “attacks by the Israeli state on the territory of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip”.
It also said: “It must be made clear that the proposal condemned the Israeli state and not the Jewish religion.”
The Government is issuing new guidance to public authorities warning that town hall boycotts are “inappropriate” unless formal legal sanctions or embargoes have been put in place by the Government itself.
The Cabinet Office says boycotts could “undermine good community relations, poison and polarise debate, weaken integration and fuel anti-Semitism”.
At the same time they could hinder the UK’s export trade and harm international relationships, say ministers.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has described the guidance as “an attack on local democracy”.
His spokesman said: ”People have the right to elect local representatives able to make decisions free of central government political control.
“That includes withdrawal of investments or procurement on ethical and human rights grounds.
”This Government’s ban would have outlawed council action against Apartheid South Africa. Ministers talk about devolution, but in practice they’re imposing Conservative Party policies on elected local councils across the board.”
Mr Palmer argued that all three councils had singularly failed to comply with their public sector equality duty (PSED) under the Equality Act.
Section 149 of the Act required them to have due regard to the need to “eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation” of Jewish people, and the need to foster good relations between them and non-Jewish people.
Mr Palmer rejected the allegation that Jewish Rights Watch, trading as Jewish Human Rights Watch, was established solely to bring a judicial review over the Leicester boycott.
He said it was a reaction to wider concerns within the Jewish community that Jews had become “fair game as targets”.
He referred to a witness statement from Jonathan Neumann, a director of the organisation, which was set up by a small group of Jewish and non-Jewish professionals towards the end of 2014.
In his statement, Mr Neumann said attacks against Jews in the UK had increased considerably in recent years and “we are now experiencing record levels of anti-Semitic incidents for the last 20 years.
Mr Neumann added: “Anti-Semitic views, promoted by groups and people who had previously been considered as fringe, appear to have become mainstream and there is a sense within the Jewish community that Jews have become fair game as targets”.
Mr Neumann said the aim of Jewish Rights Watch was to counter and challenge the growth of anti-Semitism in general, and in particular “the very powerful, extremist” movement in the UK called the BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanction of Israel.
He stated that “War on Want has for some time been considered one of the worst charities, from promoting anti-Semitism through its support of BDS”.
Andrew Sharland, representing the local councils, told the judges that the JHRW case was misconceived and must fail on all grounds.
Mr Sharland said the case was “fundamentally about freedom of expression” and the councillors who passed the resolutions under attack were expressing the views and concerns of their communities.
He said: “The reason that this case has been brought is that the claimant strongly disagrees with those views and want to stop local authorities debating Israel’s actions.”
The hearing continues on Thursday.