Boycott Israel?

Submitted by AWL on 31 March, 2005 - 8:02

Earlier this month Oxfam announced that it would sever its links with Starbucks. Starbucks had agreed to contribute £100,000 to Oxfam’s rural development programme in the East Harare coffee growing region of Ethiopia. Starbucks is well known for its anti-union activities. However, the campaign to get Oxfam to break its links was not about Starbucks’ hypocritical “concern” for human welfare, but had been co-ordinated by a coalition of Islamist groups and Palestinian Solidarity campaigners, with the Islamist-backed Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in the lead.

Their principal objection to Starbucks was its perceived pro-Israel stance. “Starbucks’ chair Howard Schultz is an active Zionist whose own activities include running propaganda seminars on behalf of Israel across campuses in both North America and Israel.”

The news prompted this debate on the No Sweat website (www.nosweat.org.uk):

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The aims of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) are nothing to do with democracy, civil liberties, etc, but are “to champion the rights and duties revealed for human beings.” The IHRC is an Islamist organisation. Anything these people say about “Zionism” or Jews should be treated with contempt.

No NGO should allow Starbucks to make itself look good by association with itself. Starbucks is anti-union. Then again no-one should be surprised that this doesn’t bother Oxfam.

At the end of 2004 Oxfam pulled out of a campaign against the production of Xmas crackers by British homeworkers because it feared that its own Xmas crackers were produced for sweatshop wages…

Why should we object to anti-Israeli boycotts? A boycott of Starbucks will alienate Starbucks workers, not help to organise them. But, again, IHRC et al aren’t interested in unions; they’re interested in a political campaign which targets a prominent Jew.

We’ve seen this type of campaign before. Marks & Spencers has been targeted for similar boycotts and pickets — not because it is Israeli but because it is believed to have Jewish owners (in fact, it used to have Jewish owners), and is seen to be a Jewish store. M&S is also often called a “pro-Zionist” company by the campaigners to try to avoid the tag of anti-semitism.

This type of boycott activity helps more general anti-semitic campaigning which, of course, is what the Islamists want.

How does Oxfam explain itself? In the Financial Times (4 March 2005): “Oxfam [has] acknowledged that it had received criticism and protest letters from Muslim organisations but said its decision was the result of a change in strategic thinking in its Make Trade Fair campaign. ‘At the time we signed our agreement with Starbucks UK, we looked into allegations of the company’s relations with the Israeli Defence Force and other similar claims and found nothing that could justify ending our collaboration. That remains the case,’ said Phil Bloomer, head of Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign.”

Behind the vague reassurances we may still wonder whether at least part of the reason Oxfam withdrew from its partnership with Starbucks is that it gave in to reactionary, anti-semitic pressure.

Bob Cartridge, head of campaigns for War on Want, when asked about this opinion said: “…I suspect Oxfam has reacted to a vocal pro-Israeli minority and concerns about potential damage to its future fundraising. All NGOs working in Palestine are well aware of this lobby, which complains on a daily basis about any support given to the opposition.”

What’s being suggested here? A Jewish lobby? Capable of spiking Oxfam’s fundraising? I think the left should choose its words more carefully.

Mark Osborn

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It’s certainly possible to make arguments for and against boycotts as an effective tactic. But, I don’t see why boycotting companies linked to Israel, at a time when Israel is engaged in extreme, genocidal violence against Palestinians, should be seen as “anti-semitic”. Marks & Spencer are not targeted because they are “Jewish” or “Israeli” owned, but, rather, because they deal extensively with Israel, buy preferentially from Israeli sellers and buy products which are produced in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

If, as critics claim, Starbucks’ CEO is involved in speaking tours to promote Israel, this also seems to involve a direct link. I fail to see how the situation is different from the boycott of companies linked to apartheid South Africa. And, while again one could criticise this tactic, it certainly would not amount to “anti-white racism” or “anti-Afrikanerism” or any such.

Similarly, why is it “anti-semitic” to suggest that there is an influential pro-Israel lobby in existence? The existence of groups such as ADL, AIPAC and MEMRI is well-documented, as is their political influence. I’ve seen at first-hand some of the antics of the Union of Jewish Students, who, despite their generically Jewish title, use their disproportionate lobbying strength to exert pro-Israeli influence in NUS politics. Is it anti-semitic to recognise the existence of such lobbying groups? If it is, then it is certainly also Islamophobic to criticise Islamic campaigning groups!

What evidence does Mark have that IHRC is “Islamist”? There are many religious charities in existence. Most of these charities have various faith-linked ethical causes. Are they all to be dismissed as reactionary fundamentalists? Surely it is a just cause, to be campaigning for Israel to respect human rights?

Andy

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I’m against the violence of the Israeli state in the West Bank and Gaza. But that violence isn’t “genocide”. Let’s get the scale right.

And let’s be consistent. Why does the left not campaign for a boycott of Russian produce, given Putin’s violence in Chechnya (which, in fact, is far, far worse than Israeli violence in the West Bank)? The truth is that the left has a problem with Israel. It sees it as a particularly bad state. The idea that we should focus our limited energy against firms with specific trading relationships with Israel is bizarre. If a capitalist firm has a preference for Israeli goods that would indicate it can make money: that’s how these things work! What “preferential”, pro-Israel trading for ideological reasons does M&S do?

Even if we did conclude that we should go with the boycott idea, we should certainly not do it alongside Islamists. An organisation which defines human rights as those revealed by God in the Qu’ran should not be campaigned alongside.

Sure the ADL, UJS exist. But War on Want are saying something particular: “Oxfam has reacted to a vocal pro-Israeli minority and concerns about potential damage to its future fundraising.” How could a possible UJS complaint seriously affect “future fundraising”? Because other “potential fundraisers” don’t like Jewish groups!

The alternative to boycotts, boycotts of Israel, and working with Islamists? Working-class solidarity. Jewish and Arab workers’ unity.

Mark Osborn

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A well-planned boycott campaign is to exert economic pressure to rectify injustice. Is it implausible that a boycott of companies which trade extensively with Israel could put sufficient pressure on the Israeli economy that Israeli bosses settle for a just or at least tolerable peace, rather than risk economic collapse?

Israel is not unique in being subject to such a campaign. There’s a boycott campaign against Shell for complicity in genocidal violence in Nigeria. There’s a boycott against Coca-Cola for involvement with Colombian paramilitaries…This isn’t about a special hostility to Israel.

Andy

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Andy says: “The point is to exert economic pressure to rectify injustice.” Consumer boycotts or trade union action and working class mobilisation? Campaigns that single out Israel and “Zionists” for special treatment, or international workers’ solidarity?

“Is is implausible that a boycott of companies which trade extensively with Israel could put sufficient pressure on the Israeli economy that Israeli bosses settle for a just or at least tolerable peace, rather than risk economic collapse?”

The intifada has created a great deal of damage to the Israeli economy — much more than a small western boycott could. It didn’t work, achieve a “tolerable peace”. It doesn’t address the issues, because, not least, we are concerned not just to cause Israel problems, but to build up progressive working class alternatives to Sharon and Hamas.

“Israel is not unique in being subject to such a campaign.” I’m not sure about this either. In Nigeria, why not link with the Nigerian oilworkers rather than boycott Shell?

The British left’s hostility to Israel is special. After all no one one calls for the abolition of the Nigerian state…

Mark Osborn

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Because IHRC is an “Islamist” organisation does not mean its views on Zionism should be treated with “contempt”, rather “caution”, as should most views about Israel/Palestine, due to the sheer amount of propaganda and disinformation that the whole subject generates. The guy from War on Want is talking about his experience in Palestine (i.e., the Occupied Territories). He is therefore well-placed to talk about Zionist lobby groups. Of course they are also Jewish — how many non-Jewish Zionist groups do you think there are in Israel and the occupied territories? This does not make him anti-semitic. The desire of some to equate all criticism of Israel with anti-semitism (as if the state of Israel should somehow be above all criticism), is a deliberate attempt to stifle all debate, and worryingly could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

C

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Perhaps you think it is possible to cherry pick from Islamists’ propaganda (9/11: not very nice; hatred of Jews, not very good; statements against Zionism, sometimes quite reasonable)? The problem is that all these groups hate Jews, and that’s contemptible!

I’m not refusing to criticise Israel! Read the discussion!

It is not true that a bit of criticism from some Jewish groups will significantly affect Oxfam’s fundraising. That is, unless you believe there is a powerful group of people behind the scenes pulling strings…

Mark

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