Leicester, lawfare and BDS: what would Mr Pickwick say?

In The Pickwick Papers, Mr Pickwick accidentally becomes engaged to his landlady. When he realises the mix-up, he makes clear to Mrs Bardell that he will not be marrying her. She responds, in true Victorian comic fashion, by suing him for breach of promise, an obscure 19th century tort to be used against men who break off engagements.

The trial was so entertaining to Dickens’ readers because of the inherent absurdity at its heart. The supposed wrongful act was Mr Pickwick’s decision not to marry Mrs Bardell, but the court couldn’t solve that problem. It had no power to force him to marry her (and even if it had, the ensuing union would presumably not have been much of a marriage).

It could award damages but those damages would not do anything to assuage Mrs Bardell’s lack-of-husband. Her real gripe was not that Mr Pickwick had breached his promise, but that he was not marrying her.

The drama of Bardell v Pickwick is currently being re-enacted in the High Court in London, although this time the case is entitled R (Jewish Human Rights Watch) v Leicester City Council. The good city of Leicester has – rather at odds with the adjective ‘good’ – voted to boycott Israel. That’s obviously a horrendous idea, as well as illegal on a couple of grounds, including equality law and local government legislation.

The recourse to the courts (popularly termed ‘lawfare’) kind of misses the point. The most that can be achieved by the case brought by Jewish Human Rights Watch (a distastefully-named organisation that has, thus far, never released a press statement which hasn’t compared someone to the Nazis) is a judicial order quashing Leicester’s boycott.

But that means nothing. Leicester City Council hardly used any Israeli produce before their vote, so overturning it will restore a situation not fundamentally different to the status quo.

Because the real mischief of Leicester’s BDS is not the fact that Leicester is not buying Israeli goods – Israel’s economy will muddle through somehow – the real mischief is that a group of elected local councillors decided it was the right thing to do.

And forcing them to stop due to a legal technicality won’t show them the error of their ways. The problem is that they want to boycott, not that they are boycotting. The boycott itself is completely negligible. The sentiment is everything, as with Mrs Bardell’s engagement: she didn’t want Mr Pickwick to be forced to marry her, she wanted him to want to marry her, and that is a remedy no court can offer.

The legal route also diverts attention from the real issues. Jewish Human Rights Watch and the Friends of Israel groups have used the court case as a new campaigning tactic: “As matters stand,” said a JHRW press release, “we believe that the council will be liable to pay their own costs and ours in the region of £200,000.” This was followed by a hail of abusive tweets along the lines of, “How dare you spend £200k of your citizens’ money on boycotting Israel?”

Such arguments are a little misleading. The council’s boycott of Israel is stupid but free. It does not cost £200,000 to boycott Israel. What costs £200,000 is unsuccessfully defending legal proceedings. So really, the ratepayers of Leicester are only liable to incur losses of £200,000 because of JHRW’s decision to go to court.

For them, then, to attempt to bludgeon the council into conceding the lawsuit with a costs war is unfair and undignified. If they have the law on their side (which they do), they will win in court. Setting out to drain the council’s bank account, and using that as a publicity stunt, is just not cricket – and hardly helps to dispel anti-Semitic stereotypes of ‘Jewish money’ being thrown around to pervert British democracy in pursuit of Israel’s interests.

Forcing Leicester City Council to drop its boycott just means forcing it to consider buying Israeli goods. That’s not really a big step forward when its leaders support boycotts. Just like Mrs Bardell, Jewish Human Rights Watch won’t get what it wants from the courts.

It doesn’t really matter to Israel whether or not provincial English local authorities actually buy its produce. Our concern should be that people want to. And people can’t be forced or intimidated or injuncted out of their views. “Him that complies against his will is of the same opinion still.”

People can only be educated or persuaded.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London