Getting boycott ethics right
Why does the Co-op pick Israeli companies to boycott? It doesn’t add up.
This morning in Manchester I found myself demonstrating outside the HQ of a major supermarket chain.
It wasn’t the HQ of a profiteering capitalist supermarket chain though. I was demonstrating outside the HQ of the Cooperative Group, an organisation which prides itself on its ethical standards. A mutually owned organisation I am proud to be a member of, alongside six million others.
The protest today outside the Co-op was because it has allowed itself to get dragged into the complex and fraught arena of the Middle East conflict.
Under pressure from anti-Israel activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (an organisation heavily influenced by Leninist groups such as the SWP and Socialist Action which have an ideological objection to Israel’s existence), the Co-op has adopted a policy of boycotting all the produce, wherever it is sourced, from four Israeli companies which source some produce from Israeli settlements. These companies include one that is the main exporter for the Kibbutz (communes/cooperative farms) movement – an icon of the global cooperative tradition – and one that is the main exporter for Palestinian farmers. All of their produce is now blacklisted by the Co-op.
The Co-op’s boycott position is unlikely to have any economic impact on Israel. Israel and the UK have increased their trade with each other by 30 per cent in the last year to almost £4bn.
But it is one part of a global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign by anti-Israel activists which is aimed at undermining Israel’s legitimacy by comparing it to apartheid South Africa and using the same tactics against Israel that were used against South Africa.
This is pernicious because Israel is the only stable parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, with freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, a vibrant multi-party debate, freedom of worship and sexual orientation, and full civil rights for minorities, including its Arab citizens. It is a society which bears no relation to the racist police-state, ruled by a small and privileged minority group, that was apartheid South Africa.
The boycott also impacts on the UK’s Jewish community. The vast majority of British Jews consider themselves Zionists (supporters of a Jewish state in Israel), and feel a profound personal and emotional attachment to Israel. When they hear the Co-op is joining in with the BDS campaigners it alienates them from the Cooperative movement and makes them feel unwelcome in Co-op stores. Throughout history the Jewish people have been subjected to boycotts by host communities, culminating in the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops and businesses.
Anything that carries echoes of that by boycotting Israeli businesses is understandably incredibly distressing for Jewish people.
I’m not Jewish, but as director of We Believe in Israel, a grassroots network of non-Jewish and Jewish supporters of Israel, I was making my distress about the boycott known to the Co-op alongside local activists from within the Jewish community in Manchester.
We are not asking the Co-op to ignore the issue of settlements and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank since the 1967 six day war. My organisation strongly supports a two-state solution, with a lasting peace delivered through the negotiated creation of a Palestinian state in return for Israel getting the security it needs. After all, if you are a Zionist and believe in the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, it follows that the Palestinians should have a state of their own, and the only place this can happen is in Gaza and the West Bank.
But a simplistic approach that merely condemns the settlements and hangs a boycott policy on that ignores the fact that the future status of the small percentage of West Bank land where Israeli settlements are sited is a key issue for any peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. All serious peace plans have involved ‘land-swaps’ where some settlements become part of Israel. This isn’t a simple issue which can be decided by campaigners in the UK.
I strongly believe that the Co-op should not take sides in the complex Middle East conflict by boycotting Israeli companies. It should engage and trade with both sides and work for peace. It should particularly work with the Israeli and Palestinian co-op movements to foster economic engagement and joint projects that build confidence and trust between the two peoples.
Particularly troubling is the way that Israel has been singled out for this type of treatment. The Co-op’s boycott is hinged on an ethical policy which, rather than making objective judgements about the scale of human rights problems in a country, has, as one of its four criteria, a clause about there being an international consensus about illegal occupation of territory. This catches Israel and only one other area, the Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara. The West Bank is almost sui generis as its legal status was confused by the previous occupying power, having been Jordan from 1948 to 1967, whose rule was only recognised by two other countries. Other high-profile cases of an occupation of questionable legality – China’s rule in Tibet and the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus – are not similarly treated as they fall outside the narrow definition set by the Co-op, largely because the Co-op relies on the viewpoint of the UN, which has an entrenched anti-Israel majority, making political rather than moral judgements. It is almost as though the Co-op either subcontracted its ethical policy to ethically dubious views of the UN General Assembly, or wrote a policy specifically designed to target the world’s only Jewish state.
The ethical double standard is that the Co-op has no problem trading with companies sourcing from some of the most pernicious dictatorships and human rights-abusing regimes in the world. It holds 60 per cent of the share capital of a pharmaceutical company incorporated in China. It sells ‘romantic honeymoon packages’ to Communist Cuba. It sells bananas from Ivory Coast, which Freedom House says is ‘not free’. It says Oman, also ‘not free’, is a travel ‘must see’. It has no policy against buying petrol from Saudi Arabia (the Co-op is in partnership with Texaco petrol stations thanks to its purchase of Somerfield).
As far as I can establish, while it proactively boycotts four Israeli companies, the Co-op has no policy stopping it buying produce from Syria, where the regime is using death squads, tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and bombs against its own civilians.
If you are a member of the Co-op and think it is wrong that it should boycott companies from Israel, a rare beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, please make your views known to your elected representatives in the Co-op structures and help us push the Co-op to develop a policy more worthy of its proud ethical traditions. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in this campaign or would like to be on our mailing list.
cooperative, Israel, Luke Akehurst, Middle East