Quick Pushback Is Needed as BDS Efforts Grow
In September there were a number of international BDS incidents. The Reykjavik city council’s decision to boycott all Israeli products was quickly ridiculed; now only “settlement” products will be boycotted. But European Union labeling of Israeli products from “settlements” now appears set to begin in October. Condemnations of the Iceland incident prompted a partial pullback; the same strategy is being used with the European Union but the results are uncertain. In all situations vigilance and quick response are required to make pushback against BDS possible.
Several BDS developments stood out in September. Most publicized was the decision by the Reykjavik city council to boycott all Israeli products “as long as the occupation of Palestinian territories continues.” The boycott initiative was led by a well-known pro-Palestinian member of the council, despite the almost complete lack of Israeli products in Iceland. Israeli officials and European Jewish leaders immediately criticized the decision. It was also quickly pointed out that the boycott contravened World Trade Organization regulations. The Icelandic government then distanced itself from the municipality’s decision, saying it did not represent the country’s policy. Icelandic firms including airlines indicated they had received cancelations and that the city had been threatened with the withdrawal of a key foreign investment. Reports now indicate that the Reykjavik mayor had modified the decision to only ban products from Israeli “settlements.”
The partial retraction of the almost wholly symbolic boycott gesture by an entity with no real economic or political relationships with Israel indicates that BDS initiatives are often both propaganda warfare against Israel and manifestations of “virtue signaling.” In the latter, endorsing BDS is a means to demonstrate “decency” and “virtue” (and thus ideological solidarity, almost exclusively with the left) by expressing antipathy towards designated unpopular causes. In these and other cases, however, quick exposure and responses may be effective in pushing back BDS.
Other BDS developments in September were less symbolic. Reports now indicate that European Union (E.U.) labeling of products that originate in Israeli communities across the “Green Line” will commence in October. The move came after the recent endorsement of labeling by the European Parliament and by the French Economic Minister. A European official also warned that “we will continue with moves against settlement expansion, and the marking of products will just be the beginning.” The labels and remarks reflect the E.U.’s relentless focus on “settlements” as the exclusive means to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict.
Israeli officials have reacted angrily to the impending labels. The issue was raised in a strategic dialogue with E.U. officials that accompanied the visit of European Council President Donald Tusk to Israel. Israeli officials complained that the labeling was actually a means to force a diplomatic solution. Israeli officials also noted that the labels were unfair, since among other things they were not applied to other “occupied territories” such as Northern Cyprus, and that they constituted a slippery slope towards a full boycott of Israel.
In a sign that the labeling issue is being taken seriously at the highest levels, Israeli Prime Minister warned before his official visit to Great Britain that the E.U. risked losing Israeli high tech business to Indian and Chinese investors. This assertiveness was echoed by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who warned that European labeling “settlement” products was a “red line” for Israel. It was unclear, however, precisely what measures Israel would take besides diplomatic initiatives.
The European Union’s continuing focus on “settlements” continues to have a trickle down effect in European countries, where decisions are made to boycott Israel in commercial settings. In Luxembourg a local grocery chain removed all Israel produce pending the introduction of labeling that allows consumers to distinguish what items originate in “settlements.” The decision came after months of pro-BDS protests at stores. Though the quantity of Israeli products is small, since no labeling system is in place, the chain’s low-cost decision effectively boycotts Israel completely.
Other expedient business decisions that exclude Israel or Israeli products have been documented. These include the decision by American Airlines to drop its flights to Israel. While the airline claimed this was simply the decision to end an unprofitable route, critics allege it came under pressure from Arab states. This interpretation is supported by Delta Airline’s contrasting decision to add flights to Israel.
Similar informal boycotts appear to be underway in academia. While a BDS resolution was rejected at the University of Toronto, more reports have emerged of academics being pressured to ‘denounce the occupation’ as a condition of participating in international conferences. These echo similar demands from Palestinian sources.
The BDS movement’s rejection of Israel’s existence was also displayed in the continuing opposition to the Israeli firm SodaStream. In September the company began to transfer production from the West Bank to a new facility in the northern Negev, a move that will now put hundreds of Palestinians out of work. Despite claims of success from BDS advocates, company reiterated that BDS had no influence on the decision to move.
BDS advocates also state that the company should be shunned since the new facility has allegedly displacedlocal Bedouin, a claim the company has denied. Opposition to Israel, and not the “occupation,” is the underlying motivation of the BDS movement. BDS advocates have not yet responded to SodaStream’s offer to employ 1,000 Syrian refugees.
In other international news Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of Dani Dayan as Israel’s next ambassador to Brazil. From 2007 to 2013 Dayan, a former high tech entrepreneur, was the chair of the umbrella Yesha Council representing Israeli communities in the West Bank. At least 40 organizations in Brazil have called on that country to reject Dayan’s appointment.
Elsewhere, the fallout from the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the head of Britain’s Labour Party continues. Prior to his election Corbyn expressed support for boycotting Israeli universities involved in arms research, and other members of his party and shadow government have endorsed similar policies. Pressure will now increase on Labour from pro-BDS organizations in Britain for the party to change its stance. Labour’s invitation to rejoin the party issued to former member Jenny Tonge indicate it will welcome even notorious antisemites and anti-Israel activists.
BDS continues to be an issue at the local level. Two non-binding anti-BDS resolutions were adopted in September, by the Pennsylvania State Senate and the Chicago City Council. Both were adopted unanimously. The latter is particularly interesting given that Chicago is one of the national hotbeds for BDS. Another local development was an Israel divestment proposal to the Berkeley “Human Welfare and Community Action Commission.” Some 100 people attended the debate over the proposal, which was supported by Jewish Voice for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Middle East Children’s Alliance. The resolution was sent to committee and could be voted on in October. But the individual who proposed the resolution was removed from the “Human Welfare and Community Action Commission” by a city councilman, who appears to have resented the controversial nature of the proposal.
In the economic sphere the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union adopted BDS resolutions at the end of August, calling for, among other things, the Palestinian “right of return.” The 35,000 member union has a long history of left-wing political activism for causes including U.S. policy toward Cuba, opposition to the Iraq War, and support for Palestinians. The small size and uniquely democratic structure of the union, which represents both private and public sector workers, make it vulnerable to marginal activist causes such as BDS.
The General Electric corporation was immediately warned by the Israeli NGO Shurat HaDin to void their contracts with the union lest they expose the company to liability for the union’s “unlawful racial discrimination on the basis of national origin and/or race, creed and religion.”
In cultural news the appearance of singer/producer Pharell Williams in South Africa prompted loud calls for protests. Though BDS supporters predicted tens of thousands of protesters only a few hundred appeared.