Following the scandal that hit the Co-operative Bank last year, the Co-op Group, the UK’s largest mutual enterprise, has changed its senior management. The new management have initiated a large-scale listening exercise, asking people ‘for their views on the future of the Group and the big issues facing communities across the UK’. Organised through YouGov, the survey is online here. Any potential customer over 16 can complete it.
Labour and Co-operative party activists are understandably primarily focused on the troubling questions buried in the survey that seem to be hinting at and rather unsubtly leading people towards answers that would sever the Co-op Group’s link with and funding of the Co-op party and the Labour party. For instance, the survey asks people if they would rather that the political donations were used to cut prices in the shops, without providing any context about the values and objectives of the Co-op movement and how the Co-op party promotes these in councils and in parliament. As a Co-op party member I’ve used the survey to express my opposition to such a move, which looks like a fairly blatant attempt to provide ‘cover’ for the Group basically destroying the Co-op party by stopping funding it.
But the survey is also of interest to progressive supporters of Israel who support a negotiated two-state solution to the Middle East conflict and oppose the campaign to boycott and delegitimise Israel.
The survey gives us a chance to protest against the Co-op’s boycott policy.
In 2012 the Co-op Group introduced a policy of boycotting all the produce from four Israeli agricultural export companies. They said this was because these companies source some produce from Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but the boycott extends to anything the companies sell, most of which is produced inside the pre-1967 green line.
The Co-op’s human rights and trade policy seems specifically drafted to target Israel, because it focuses on issues around settlements and disputed territory. The only other produce they boycott is from Moroccan-occupied western Sahara. They do not have a boycott policy or take any other action against regimes where extreme human rights violations are taking place such as North Korea, Syria, Iran, China or Saudi Arabia.
There are two places in the survey where supporters of Israel have an opportunity to reopen the question of the Co-op’s boycott policy.
Most of the questions – and there are many of them – are general ones, but about ten questions in, the survey asks:
‘What, if anything, should the Co-operative do to encourage more people to shop with it?’
If you oppose the boycott you can use this text box to say that you want the Co-op to drop their boycott of four Israeli companies and that this policy is discouraging people who support Israel from shopping with them. There is space to elaborate and explain why you dislike the policy.
For me this includes the fact that boycotts don’t help bring peace as they divide people rather than bringing them together. The policy runs against cooperative values.
The policy is discriminatory because it singles out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, but ignores countries where there are extreme human rights abuses. Israel is a democracy with a proud history of co-operatives including the kibbutz movement, so it is a bizarre target for a boycott by the Co-op.
The boycott policy is a clumsy and crass intervention in a complex conflict and I think it is extremely unhelpful for the Co-op to be picking sides in this way.
Furthermore, I don’t believe the Co-op should associate itself with the anti-Israel boycott movement as the boycott is promoted by extremists who object to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, including antisemites. The long history of antisemitic boycotts of Jewish businesses makes it a particularly offensive tactic to use against Israel.
If it wants to get involved in the Middle East conflict, the Co-op should take constructive action instead, which would help peace, instead of demonising and boycotting one side. For example, it could support joint projects that involve Israeli and Palestinian co-ops working closer together, or help with funding and expertise to build up the co-operative sector in the Palestinian economy. The Co-op could support groups like One Voice, the campaign for peace and a two state solution, which organises amongst both Israelis and Palestinians. It could encourage and support the Israeli and Palestinian Co-op movements in any work they are doing that promotes coexistence and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
On the next page of the survey it asks ‘Which three of these, if any, would be most likely to make you shop with the Co-operative food more often?’ I ticked ‘Other’ and wrote ‘Dropping the Israel boycott policy’.
Please do let the Co-op know how you feel about their negative stance towards Israel. You can find the survey here.
Luke Akehurst is the director of We Believe in Israel, a UK network of supporters of Israel and a negotiated two-state solution
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