Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): Boycott of Israeli Goods

Thanks to Phan Nguyen, the original author, and Works In Progress, the original publisher.

1. Boycott is a tactic, not a principle.

This concept was most eloquently detailed by Nelson Mandela. A boycott is initiated to create change. It is not a tool of rejection, retribution, punishment, or disgust. When workers go on strike, it is not because they hate their employers and want to kill them; it is because they seek improvement in their working conditions. A boycott works the same way.

When an individual refuses to purchase a product due to ethical considerations, that is a principled stand. The stand by itself does not create change. However, when a call for boycott is instituted and a movement begins that refuses to participate in the consumption of an item, then it becomes a tactic for creating change, with consumer power as its weapon.

2. Boycotting Israel does not preclude doing anything about anything else anywhere.

Boycotting Israel does not mean one cannot engage in any other activism, nor does it imply that boycotting is the only viable tactic in the world. There are many causes in the world and many ways to address those causes. Boycotting Israel does not prevent anyone from engaging in other causes. Likewise, other important causes should not be exploited simply to prevent doing something about the Palestine/Israel conflict, in which we are complicit.

3. The BDS movement on Israel is international, it’s grassroots, it’s growing, and it’s working.

The movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) began in 2005, when over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations working both in Palestine and Israel issued an international call for participation in nonviolent action to compel Israel to abide by international law and end human rights abuses. The call has been picked up internationally. This new BDS movement has been endorsed and/or practiced by prominent figures such as Desmond Tutu, Arundhati Roy, Rigoberta Menchu, Shirin Ebadi, Eduardo Galeano, Alice Walker, Gil Scott-Heron, and Elvis Costello.

Additionally, it is endorsed by several organizations, including Code Pink, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Boycott from Within (Israel), Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Palestinian Queers for BDS, Central Única dos Trabalhadores, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and Fédération Syndicale Unitaire.

The Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott in particular has been publicly endorsed by Naomi Klein, Cindy Sheehan, Medea Benjamin (Code Pink), Ann Wright, Richard Falk (UN Special Rapporteur), Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, nomy lamm, Anthony Arnove, Yonatan Shapira (Israeli Air Force captain and co-founder of Combatants for Peace), American Jews for a Just Peace, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and many more.

Israel is taking the growing BDS movement seriously. It has arrested Palestinian leaders who endorse BDS. The Knesset is now considering legislation that would make it illegal for Jewish Israeli activists to endorse BDS.

4. We were already taking sides before the Co-op boycott was instituted.

By stocking Israeli goods in the midst of an international call for boycott, and for the Co-op to continue to do so after a working member requested the honoring of the boycott two years ago, the Co-op was already taking sides. This is in addition to the US government being the primary enabler of Israel, giving Israel $3+ billion a year, which is equal to or more than the total amount of US aid given to all of sub-Saharan Africa. The US government also provides diplomatic cover and political support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

With these tenets in mind, here are some frequently posed arguments, in the form of frequently asked questions.

Does the Co-op boycott call for the destruction of Israel?

No. The boycott calls for compliance with international law and human rights.

Many protesters claim that the Co-op Board of Directors is intent on destroying Israel through the boycott. One of the signs held by a protester claimed that the boycott would be in effect until “Israel ceases to exist.” A call to action by the anti-Arab/anti-Muslim organization StandWithUs claims the boycott calls for “nothing less than the disbanding of Israel as a Jewish state.” These claims exploit common fears. Nothing in the Co-op’s boycott calls for the destruction of Israel.

According to the Co-op’s Israel boycott policy, the conditions for ending the boycott cite the conditions outlined in the Palestinian Civil Society call for BDS. According to the Palestinian call, this requires Israel to “meet[] its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully compl[y] with the precepts of international law.”

Thus the conditions for ending the boycott are based on international law. International law does not call for the destruction of Israel. The Palestinian BDS call requires that Israel “end[] its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands….” As recognized by international law, these occupied Arab lands refer to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, with the acceptance of “minor” and “mutual” adjustments to the borders under UN Security Council Resolution 242.

The Palestinian BDS call also requires Israel to “respect[], protect[] and promote[] the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.” Protesters claim that allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland (from which they were expelled by Israel) would mean the destruction of Israel. This is akin to white people who feared that the end of slavery in the US would mean the destruction of the South, or Afrikaners who feared that the end of apartheid meant the death of South Africa. However, respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of refugees to return home is simply what it says. Article 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 also acknowledges that compensation for refugees is a viable alternative for those choosing not to return home.

Israel to this day refuses to accept any responsibility for the 1947-8 expulsion of Palestinians from what is now Israel — either blaming the Palestinians for deciding to leave, justifying the act as a reward for conquest, or in effect stating “finders keepers, losers weepers.” Despite attempts by Israel to delegitimize Palestinian refugee rights, international law remains clear on the issue.

The final stipulation of the Palestinian BDS call requires Israel to “recognize[] the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” Such a requirement would not be possible if the expectation was that Israel cease to exist.

There is nothing in the Co-op’s boycott policy nor in international law that calls on Israel to “cease[] to exist.” Opposition to the stated requirements is simply opposition to existing international law and basic human rights, while reframing the message to imply that abiding by international law and human rights standards is somehow harmful to Israel, with no acknowledgement of how Israel’s noncompliance is oppressive to Palestinians.

Why didn’t the Co-op board consult with its membership before honoring the boycott?

The Co-op has established policy guidelines and protocols for observing boycotts. The Israel boycott fit those guidelines. No previous boycott has ever been presented to Co-op members prior to implementation. In fact, the original request for a boycott was made by a Co-op working member in 2008.

If the Co-op had addressed the potential Israel boycott to the entire membership prior to implementation, it would have been instituting a double standard-one in which Israel’s actions are given greater license than those of China, Norway, or even Colorado.

The Co-op makes many decisions without conferring with the entire membership. However, those decisions are based on clear policy guidelines. For instance, the Co-op has product selection guidelines that relate to a product’s packaging. According to these guidelines, “[t]he Co-op will not carry products whose retail packaging is deemed exploitive or oppressive. Such determination may be made by the department manager, the merchandising team or the staff as a whole.” Items have been removed from the shelves when they were determined to violate the packaging guidelines and done without informing the entire membership.

But that’s a very undemocratic way of running a Co-op, isn’t it?

One could make that argument. Obviously, not all Co-op decisions can be put to a member-wide vote. The Co-op boycott policy has been posted on the Co-op’s website for years, and its previous boycotts have not drawn the type of criticism that the Israel boycott has evoked. The reaction to the Israel boycott enforces the concept that Israel is a country beyond reproach, or at least one that must be treated differently from all others.

Many people protesting the board’s decision have decided to institute a boycott against the Co-op. There are also threats to boycott local businesses that advertise in the Co-op newsletter. On one hand, it demonstrates that these protesters have faith in the power of boycotts. On the other hand, it demonstrates a confusion of priorities. While these boycotters decry the board’s “undemocratic” boycott policy, they have sidestepped the democratic option enshrined in the Co-op’s policies.

That is, opponents to the boycott can overrule board decisions (or other Co-op decisions) through a member-initiated ballot. They still have this democratic option within the Co-op’s guidelines. Yet their first reaction was to institute a boycott rather than take the most direct and democratic option available.
(If only it were that easy with Israel.)

The Co-op is singling out Israel! Why doesn’t the Co-op boycott China?

The Co-op does have a longstanding boycott on China. This has not deterred people from assuming that the Co-op “singles out Israel.” Some people, having learned that the Co-op has observed boycotts on China and Norway, then resort to arguing, “Why does the Co-op only boycott China, Norway, and Israel?”

The fact is that any criticism of Israel is perceived as singling out Israel. For some people, any criticism of Israel feels amplified. Even Amnesty International, which reports on human rights abuses around the world, has been accused of singling out Israel. (For example, see the article “Amnesty Is Not Out To Get Israel” in the June 19, 2005, Jerusalem Post.)

The “singling out” argument is both meaningless and circular. In order to address China’s abuses, the Co-op had to have singled out China. In order to address Colorado’s anti-gay legislation, the Co-op had to have singled out Colorado. In order to fight apartheid in the 1980s, one had to single out South Africa.

Moreover, if the Co-op did not have a boycott on China, the Co-op’s boycott policy made it possible for any member to request the boycott. Rather than complaining about a supposed lack of boycott on China, one could have requested it.

Still, isn’t it hypocritical for us to be boycotting Israel when our own government has committed tons of atrocities? Why don’t we boycott the US?

As stated, boycott is a tactic, not a principle. The above questions assume that a boycott is a way to express hatred of or retribution for past deeds. Rather, the boycott is to produce change. Boycotting the US for its past atrocities is not asking the US to change.

As for boycotting the US for its current crimes, it is difficult to boycott the US while living inside the US, and thus tactically unsound. At the same time, Israeli activists are calling for an international boycott on Israel. They themselves cannot participate in the boycott because they live in Israel, but they challenge their own government in ways that are only possible for Israeli citizens to do. They hope that an international boycott will buttress the work that they do from the inside. This is no different than the Arizonans who are asking for a boycott of Arizona.

For a boycott to achieve its goals, it requires a campaign. Even if the Co-op were to successfully boycott the US, it would mean nothing if there weren’t a whole campaign to back it up with a unified message and broad support. An Israel boycott is worthwhile because it is backed by an international movement. Trade unions, pension funds, European supermarkets, celebrities, and others are participating in the boycott. The Israeli government is aware of the campaign (including the Co-op boycott) and its goals.

Boycotting Israel does not mean that one cannot protest the United States for change. Boycott should be employed where the tactic seems possible to affect change. It doesn’t mean you boycott everything that you disagree with. Living in the United States gives us the privilege to protest our government’s actions in many ways. Boycotting the US from within the US is generally not one of those ways.

Different protests require different tactics. Employing one tactic for one cause does not commit one to employing the same tactic for all causes. Nor does it preclude employing different tactics for different causes.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the United States is instrumental in keeping the Palestine/Israel conflict going. The US provides massive aid, diplomatic cover, and political encouragement to Israel to continue its abuses and forestall a just settlement. Addressing Israel’s occupation is resisting our own government’s complicity. For decades, people inside the US have been working for change through demonstrations, lobbying, mobilizing, education, and direct action. This work continues, but it should not preclude further action in the form of boycotts. All these tactics work together.

But Israel is not the worst human rights violator in the world. Why don’t you go after [insert China or some Arab or African country here]?

This question implies that it is hypocritical to work for change anywhere unless one works for change everywhere. Or else, it implies that only the absolute worst violations in the world should ever be addressed.

The problem is that the argument can be applied to just about any activism, not just activism on Israel/Palestine. That is, one can level these arguments against doing anything about Arizona, or about immigration in general, or about civil rights, queer rights, environmental justice, racism, sexism, apartheid, AIDS, poverty, Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, etc.

No matter what cause you engage in, there is always some other cause that could be deemed “more worthwhile.” Someone can always point to a greater atrocity or more dire situation elsewhere.

In other words, the question implies that you have to address all the problems in the world, or else you’re a hypocrite. The only way to not be a hypocrite then is to do nothing at all. Thus the argument promotes apathy as the morally superior option.

For some reason, this question is often posed to say that a true activist’s priority is some random Arab or African country. Ironically, the person who poses this question is never engaged in working for change in the region that they cite. Thus the Arab or African atrocity is used only to deflect criticism of Israel. That in itself is exploitive.

The question before deciding to engage in a cause is not “Is it the worst thing in the world?” Rather, the questions should be:

1. Is it bad enough to do something about?
2. Is it a problem that you can do something about?
And bonus points for this question:
3. Is it a problem that you are already complicit in?

Was South African apartheid the worst problem in the world? No. Was it worth fighting against? Yes.

Is the situation in Palestine comparable to or worse than apartheid? If you ask prominent South Africans who suffered under apartheid, such as Desmond Tutu, Willie Madisha, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Fatima Hassan, and Mondli Makhanya-or even if you ask the entire Congress of South African Trade Unions-the answer is yes.

If South African apartheid was bad enough to warrant boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), and if the situation in Palestine is comparable to or worse than apartheid, then isn’t BDS a viable nonviolent option for peace and justice in Palestine/Israel?

It’s hypocritical to criticize Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinians since the US did the same to the Indians here. (A variation of this argument is expressed as, “Are you going to give up your home for the Native Americans? I didn’t think so!”)

This argument is flawed in several ways:

1. It is a cynical and offensive exploitation of the genocide of the indigenous peoples of this land, evoking it only to excuse the expulsion of another people.

2. It attempts to justify the expulsion of Palestinians by claiming that ethnic cleansing is not something new and was practiced here. Thus it excuses ethnic cleansing everywhere. Although ethnic cleansing is not new, that does not make it an excusable “tradition.”

3. It implies that the Native population here simply wants to take over everyone’s homes, and it does nothing to address the real issues of oppression that Native people currently face.

4. The expulsion of the Palestinians began in 1947 and continues to this day. Refusing to address our own complicity in the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, for fear of being called a hypocrite, does nothing to help Palestinians nor Native peoples here.

5. As with related arguments, this argument of supposed hypocrisy can be used to promote inaction anywhere. That is, one cannot criticize anyone or anything because the US is not without sin.

If you’re going to boycott Israel, then you better stop using your cell phone because Israel invented the cell phone.

Believe it or not, this has been one of the most prevalent arguments against boycott received, indicating that various pro-Israel groups have been pushing this argument as the major talking point. Unfortunately, it has two major flaws:
1. It’s not true.
2. It doesn’t make sense.

Recall that boycott is a tactic, not a principle. The point is not to reject all things Israeli. The point is to employ nonviolent consumer-based activism within an international campaign in order to induce Israel to change its destructive policies.

Israel did not invent the cell phone, as is commonly argued. But even if it did, it would not mean we would necessarily reject cell phones. Nor does inventing the cell phone make it okay for Israel or the US (where the cell phone was actually created) to commit human rights abuses.

The first heart transplant was performed in apartheid South Africa. That did not make a boycott of South Africa any less relevant, nor did it mean that opponents of apartheid had to reject heart transplants.

Other commonly evoked inventions of Israel include the cherry tomato, voice mail, AOL Instant Messenger(!), and some ambiguous medical device that saved your life at some point. 99% of these claims are untrue, but they would be irrelevant even if they were true.

A boycott is so negative. Can’t we encourage change in the Middle East through positive energy? The Israeli government will change if we are nice to it.

A boycott is not a negative action. It is proactive action. It was not negative during the Civil Rights movement, and it was not negative during South African Apartheid. It was people taking action, nonviolently, where their governments failed or were complicit. The argument is often made that Israel simply requires positive encouragement. This was the same argument that the Reagan administration used to reject BDS against South Africa. They termed it “constructive engagement,” and it failed miserably. During the period of constructive engagement, the apartheid government increased its repression against black South African resistance, knowing that it could get away with it. Popular pressure eventually forced the Reagan administration to abandon constructive engagement and embrace BDS.

With Israel, the US has provided every gift imaginable, from the largest lump of US aid in the world, to UN Security Council veto power, to diplomatic cover, to concessions of every kind. This has only encouraged Israel to act with impunity. That is why the Israeli government was not afraid to humiliate the Obama administration with a “slap in the face” by declaring settlement expansion during Joe Biden’s visit in March. The Netanyahu government finally agreed to a temporary settlement freeze but then proceeded to violate that freeze.

Netanyahu has been caught quoted been as saying, “I know what America is. America is something that can easily be moved…80% of the Americans support us. It’s absurd.”

“Constructive engagement” enables Israel to act with impunity. The only recent time that the US has pressured Israel significantly was in 1992 when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to cease settlement expansion. Bush Sr. then rejected Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees. This was viewed as a monumental event and is credited with causing Shamir’s Likud party to lose to Labor in the subsequent Israeli elections.

Israel has been shown to only respond to international pressure. BDS is nonviolent international pressure.

I’m progressive on the Israel/Palestine issue, and I disagree with this boycott.

Many people consider themselves progressive or liberal or leftist on the issue, but it is insignificant where people stand on the political spectrum. What matters is what people are willing to do to help end the conflict in which we are complicit. Boycott is a nonviolent option for justice that we can all participate in. It is being utilized internationally. It is an alternative to the violence that is so common in the region. It is endorsed by prominent South Africans because they understand the value of the international BDS movement in ending apartheid. Opponents to the boycott have so far offered no viable alternatives for working toward peace. We need to stop congratulating ourselves for our political positions and start considering things we can actually do to work for change.

Is this boycott calling for a one-state or two-state solution?

The boycott calls for neither two states nor one state. It calls for respecting international law and human rights.

As Omar Barghouti, an outspoken Palestinian promoter of BDS, explains, “The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement takes no position on the shape of the political solution. It adopts a rights-based, not solutions-based, approach.”

Unfortunately, at this stage, it is not worth talking about a one-state or two-state solution, because Israel allows neither. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims to support a two-state solution, but refuses to cede Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, the major settlements, any part of Jerusalem, and even West Bank airspace. Thus Netanyahu’s concept of a two-state solution does not support any semblance of an actual Palestinian state.

Regardless of the debate over two states or one, Israel needs to abide by international law and human rights standards.

Is the Co-op boycotting Jews?

Some people are claiming that the Co-op is boycotting Jews. The Co-op does not discriminate against Jews. It carries products marketed for observant Jews. It carries products produced by Jews.

When the Co-op instituted its China boycott, it was not construed as boycotting Chinese people or Asian-Americans. This is despite the fact that Olympia has a history of discrimination against Asians. In the late nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants living in Olympia were subjected to racist attacks and were driven out of town. During World War II, Japanese Americans in the area were imprisoned in internment camps. The only explicitly racially motivated killing in recent times was that of an Asian-American teenager who was stabbed and beaten to death by two neo-Nazi skinheads in downtown Olympia in 1992. Despite this history, it was understood that a China boycott was not more “anti-Chinese” or “anti-Asian” sentiment. People recognized that the China boycott was directed at the abhorrent actions of the Chinese government, and nobody complained that Chinese-Americans were not consulted before the boycott was instituted.

I’m not Jewish, so as an ally, I must take my cue from Jews on this issue.

To borrow from Martin Niemöller:
“When they came for the Palestinians,
I did not speak up because I was not a Jew.”

This is a mistaken application of an anti-oppression framework. It is tokenizing, stereotyping, and racist.

To illustrate, ask yourself (if you’re not Chinese): would you ask a Chinese-American for permission to criticize China over its treatment of Tibet?

Would you ask a white Arizonan for permission to criticize Arizona for its racist, anti-immigrant policies?

Let’s break down the problems with this thinking:

1) Jews are not monolithic. There are Jews on “both sides” of the issue. One cannot judge the breadth of “Jewish opinion” and assess a “Jewish consensus” merely through one’s Jewish friends.

Moreover, Jews who support the boycott have been marginalized the most. They have been marginalized by non-Jews who claim that their support of the boycott is not a “real” Jewish opinion. And they have been marginalized by other Jews who have accused them of being “self-hating Jews” and “kapos”-essentially race traitors. Pro-boycott Jews have been told by other Jews (by a local rabbi, even) that they do not belong to “the Jewish community.” They have also been accused of misrepresenting Jews to the gentiles by being outspoken.

The greatest and most anti-Semitic attacks have been committed by anti-boycott Jews against pro-boycott Jews. The Jewish voices that worry about anti-Semitism from the boycott are not coming to the defense of these Jews.

2) It is tokenizing and reductive to consider Jews in one’s community to be the arbiters of acceptable discourse and action on Palestine/Israel.

3) Granting Jews the role of arbiters ignores the thoughts and feelings of Arabs and Muslims in the community who also have a stake in the issue. Jews in the community have been featured prominently in news articles about the Co-op boycott, while Arabs and Muslims in the community have complained about being ignored-or worse, demonized. Supporters of the boycott have been accused of supporting terrorists, Jew-killers, jihadists, Islam-o-fascists, the stoning of women, and female genital mutilation-all sorts of racist and Islamophobic stereotypes.

4) As most Jews in the United States are white (while acknowledging that there are many Jews who are not white), and as mainstream US perception of Jews are as whites, this stance gives deference to Jews via white privilege. There is a greater affinity to white Jews within the US mainstream due to shared Judeo-Christian heritage (regardless of the existence of Palestinian Christians) and greater positive exposure (or at least more well-rounded exposure) in the media. Thus Jews are easier to identify with than Palestinians, who are viewed as foreign, oriental, exotic, and other. Consequently, the Palestinian stake in the conflict is less perceptible, less understood, and considered less relevant.

5) In fact, Palestinians are rarely mentioned at all in mainstream articles about the boycott, despite the fact that the boycott call originated from Palestinians. The Co-op boycott then becomes a matter that is only relevant to Jews.

6) Jews are perceived as having strong feelings about the boycott, while Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims are not considered to have feelings at all. If their feelings are ever registered, they are dismissed as biased.

7) It reduces the conflict to a Jewish affair-one in which Jews are expected to sort out.

8) Human rights is not strictly a Jewish issue. One should not have to seek Jewish consent before addressing human rights.

The fact that this very article is written by a Vietnamese-American immigrant and not by a white Jew-regardless of my exposure to the Palestine/Israel conflict-may make this article less relevant to some people. This is a difficult discussion to have, particularly coming from a “gentile” like myself. Unfortunately, Palestinian rights and dignity cannot be put on hold until Jews work this out among themselves. To do so only perpetuates the notion that discourse of the Palestine/Israel conflict is “owned” by Jews.

This is also a catch-22 for organizers of the boycott. In order to dispel the notion that a boycott of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, the organizers had to stress that Jews were closely involved in the organizing. Unfortunately, this meant voices of Palestinians and of Arab and Muslim organizers were marginalized. If Arab and Muslim voices had been stressed, the boycott would be viewed with more skepticism and subjected to more accusations of anti-Semitism-not to mention being subjected to greater racist vitriol on the web.

This does not delegitimize the feelings of Jews who may feel anti-Semitism or who feel uncomfortable at the thought of a boycott. Those feelings are real by virtue of them being felt. The trauma and pain of a legacy of anti-Semitism cannot be dismissed. Yet the problem is when discourse begins and ends with the feelings of Jews-and in particular the feelings of Jews who occupy a certain political position-to the neglect of the feelings of other people, and especially to the feelings of Palestinians who are physically oppressed, and who live and die by the consequences of our actions.

We need to be sensitive to the feelings of people historically oppressed, but that should never be used to ignore or excuse the sufferings of others.

For more frequently asked questions, visit www.olympiabds.org.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: