I welcome Mel Ward’s response
for Progress opposing the Co-op’s Israel boycott policy. It raises
some important points that need to be addressed.
I think Mel is a very important voice in the debate about Israel and the
Palestinians within the Labour Party, as someone who clearly has a great
affection for Israel and the Jewish people, considers herself still to be a
friend of Israel, but has been a powerful advocate of the rights of the
Palestinians, not least during the three months she spent living in Hebron and
seeing firsthand some of the most troubling aspects of the conflict.
I share Mel’s sense of urgency about achieving a two state solution. I really
hope the current talks work. 47 years is too long for the Palestinians to have
not had their freedom. As a Zionist I argue that the Jewish people have the
right to self-determination and a nation state of their own, so it would be
logically and morally ridiculous, as well as politically stupid, to try to deny
this to the Palestinians.
But Mel has slightly misunderstood the scope of the Co-op’s boycott. She
defends it on the basis that it is a boycott of produce from “illegal Israeli
settlements”. In fact this kind of targeted boycott of settlement produce was
the initial stance the Co-op took in 2009. The point at which pro-Israel
campaigners started protesting against the Co-op’s boycott was when they
extended it beyond settlement produce in 2012, to no longer stock any produce
from four Israeli exporters because those companies source some (their websites
suggest a small minority) of their produce from settlements. This means that the
Co-op does not stock fruit and veg from Agrexco, Arava Export Growers, AdaFresh
and Mehadrin even if it is grown in pre-1967 Israel. In fact one of these
companies, Agrexco, is the main export channel to Europe for Palestinian fresh
produce, so the Co-op boycott has absurdly included produce grown by Palestinian
This expansion to a secondary boycott illustrates one of the problems with
Mel’s own preferred narrow boycott of settlement produce. In reality this narrow
boycott is seen as the first stage, the foot in the door, of the multi-stage
global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, the culmination of
which is intended to be a full consumer, cultural and academic boycott and state
sanctions against Israel.
The anti-Israel BDS campaign thus shares a tactic and a measurement of
success with the smaller group of people like Mel who don’t want to boycott
Israel itself but do want to boycott settlement goods.
This means that when an organisation like the Co-op adopts a settlement
boycott policy it isn’t just greeted as a victory by people like Mel who
specifically dislike settlements, it is trumpeted by the BDS movement as a first
stage victory for BDS and a stepping stone on the path to delegitimisation of
Israel and an eventual one state solution i.e. Israel ceasing to exist.
It also means that the practical manifestations of a settlement boycott
campaign are very difficult to tell apart from the manifestations of a general
anti-Israel boycott, and are ugly and unpleasant.
The boycott of SodaStream is a settlement produce boycott because
SodaStream’s factory is in Ma’ale Adumim. Its main practical
manifestation is a weekly demonstration outside SodaStream’s EcoStream shop in
Brighton which doesn’t limit itself to anti-settlement messages but also
features anti-Israel messaging. These demonstrations have caused a huge amount
of distress to Brighton’s small Jewish Community.
The boycott of environmental services contractor Veolia is a settlement
produce boycott because Veolia is, in the boycotters’ words, “complicit in war
crimes” because it has a stake in building the Jerusalem tram, which both Jews
and Arabs can use to travel across Jerusalem from western areas that were always
Israeli to eastern areas of the city that are considered settlements. The
demonstrators outside my town hall when this boycott was due to be debated did
not confine themselves to criticism of settlements.
The boycott of Ahava is a settlement produce boycott because the beauty
produce company uses minerals from the banks of the Dead Sea in an area that was
not part of Israel before 1967. The practical manifestation of this boycott was
an Israeli-owned shop being driven out of business in central London by regular
demonstrations that looked and sounded like they were opposed to Israel as a
whole, not just settlements, and which many Jewish people have told me they
found distressingly similar to the picket lines outside Jewish shops in Germany
in the 1930s.
The problem for Mel is that all these settlement boycotts look very much like
Israel boycotts. They are supported, promoted, and largely led by people who do
not support a two state solution like Mel does. If she went on one of these
picket lines she would find herself surrounded by people from the SWP and PSC
(Palestine Solidarity Campaign), a group whose logo does not show a two state
solution, it shows a unitary Palestine, and some of whose local chapters have
been repeatedly exposed for linking from their websites to anti-semitic and
Holocaust denial material.
The use of boycotts as a tactic in regard to Israel is designed to have a
very specific resonance with the main historic 20th
campaign, which was against apartheid South Africa. By using the tactic that was
used against apartheid, the BDS movement seeks to create an intellectual
parallel between Israel and apartheid. My BICOM colleague Professor Alan Johnson
has written an extensive
about this smear and its sinister origins.
Mel accuses me of “the deliberate conflation of criticism of the policy and
practice of the Israeli government with delegitimisation of the state of
Nothing could be further from the truth. The organisation I am Director of,
We Believe in Israel, is open to any friend of Israel, however critical or not
they are of current Israeli policies, as long as they support a two state
solution. We have people we work with and who are on our mailing list who share
Mel’s distaste for the Netanyahu government, who believe settlements are
illegal, and who want Israel to retreat to precisely the pre-1967 Green Line as
a border when two states are created.
But we have a very firm view about when criticism becomes
Any form of boycott does constitute delegitimisation because it reinforces
the false narrative that Israel is analogous with apartheid South Africa.
Boycott is an extreme tactic of last resort that has traditionally been used
against international pariah regimes who epitomise evil, not as a way of
influencing the policy of a democracy. As such its use implicitly delegitimises
The Jewish Community in the UK, through the Jewish Leadership Council and the
elected Board of Deputies, has pleaded with the Co-op to drop its boycott
because it delegitimises Israel and causes such distress to many British Jews.
Mel is a friend of the Jewish Community and should listen to them.
Mel says that this “conflation” “is a tactic increasingly used to shut
moderate voices out of the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. The
problem is that if the “moderate voices” conflate their tactics with those used
by the extreme voices who don’t want Israel to exist, it becomes difficult to
distinguish between them. It is asking too much to expect supporters of Israel
who see a baying mob outside an Israeli shop to say “oh that picket line is OK
because it might include people we know hate Israel and slogans that are about
destroying Israel, but it isn’t part of the wider BDS phenomenon (even though
the BDS movement says it is) because it targets settlement goods.”
I think Mel is guilty of a conflation too. She wants to portray all settlers
as being religious or political extremists set on confrontation with the
Palestinians. There are a tiny minority, often in outposts that Israel itself
considers illegal, who fit this stereotype. But the vast majority of settlers
are just ordinary Israeli civilians whose homes happen to be the wrong side of a
fairly arbitrary 1949 armistice line established wherever the frontline was at
the end of the War of Independence. The 70,000 Jews who have returned to live in
Gush Etzion returned to an area that was Jewish before a massacre in 1948. The
Jews living in East Jerusalem are often returning to neighbourhoods, including
the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which had had Jewish inhabitants for three
thousand years but were ethnically cleansed by the Jordanians.
Mel is simply wrong to claim that “There is no possible scenario where a
two-state solution is achievable without dismantling the vast majority of these
settlements.” This is just factually incorrect and is in fact the opposite of
the truth. Every “possible scenario where a two-state solution is achievable”
that has been tabled in recent years, including the Arab Peace Initiative,
involves the large settlement blocks where most of the settlements are, around
Jerusalem, along the Green Line, and at Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim (where the
SodaStream factory is) becoming part of Israel, with landswaps compensating the
Palestinians. Why would you boycott produce from places that the peace process
will establish are going to legally become part of Israel?
It’s an honourable position to say Israel needs to give up all the
settlements. But it’s a completely theoretical one which bears no relation to
what’s actually being debated in the current peace process. Insisting on it
makes it more difficult for Israel to sign a deal and create a Palestinian state
because it increases the percentage of the settlers who would lose their homes
and therefore would oppose a deal. Quite aside from the political implications I
cannot see any humanitarian argument for not minimising the number of people who
have to abandon their homes and livelihoods as part of a peace deal. The wars
between Israel and its Arab neighbours already created millions of refugees on
both sides. Another round of ethnic cleansing isn’t morally justifiable.
Insisting on it also makes it more difficult for Israel to address its
security concerns as key settlements are sited to stop Jerusalem being cut off
and besieged as it was in 1948, and to stop artillery being able to shell Tel
Aviv from the heights of the West Bank, and to stop shoulder-launched missiles
being able to hit passenger jets at Ben Gurion airport. These are not
theoretical considerations for a country that has been repeatedly attacked by
its neighbours, including in the 1967 war that actually led to the territories
being captured by Israel. Not addressing these security concerns would make a
deal unsellable to Israel.
Mel states that “Israel is continuing to build settlements at such a rate
that there soon will not be enough land left for a Palestinian state to be
viable”. This is a commonly propagated myth. The footprint of Israeli
settlements is not particularly expanding. Almost every announcement about
construction relates to making housing more dense in places that the consensus
is will become part of Israel in a peace deal.
Mel cites Douglas Alexander and William Hague restating the UK position that
settlements are illegal. But she doesn’t mention that both of them oppose
boycotts. The legal position the UK holds is based on an interpretation of the
Fourth Geneva Convention which boils down to whether Israel has violated a ban
on the transfer of civilian populations into territory the government occupies.
Israel would argue this ban was written to stop WW2 style involuntary
deportations to occupied territories, not voluntary movements of population. In
any case, this is a law about population movement, not the economic enterprises
whose produce Mel wants boycotted. In fact Israeli economic activity in the
areas defined as Area C, such as the Sodastream factory, is explicitly endorsed
by the Oslo Accords agreed with the Palestinians. Even if every settlement was
evacuated, why would anyone who cared about the Palestinians want to also evict
the Israeli companies that invest there and employ Palestinians? Surely Israeli
investment is going to be a major factor in whether a Palestinian state is
Mel is being one-sided when she focuses on settlements as a potential block
to a deal. Settlements are actually one of the easier issues to deal with.
Anyone with a pen, a map and a calculator could negotiate a new border that
gives most of the settlements to Israel but creates a contiguous and viable
Palestinian state. To understand this it is worth reading this paper by Shaul
Supporters of peace need to put a bit of pressure on the Palestinian
Authority to abandon the failed strategy of rejectionism, recognise Israel as a
Jewish State (thereby abandoning delegitimising Zionism and Israel), stop
selling dangerous fantasies about a mass return to Israel of the descendents of
1948 refugees, and seriously clamp down on the terrifying levels of hate
education and incitement against Jews and Israel in Palestinian society. These
are real barriers to peace.
Mel needs to scrutinise the groups she praises a bit more. She cites as an
example The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Sounds like a worthy
group. But ICAHD is led by Jeff Halper who doesn’t support a two state solution
like Mel and I do. Halper says”A Jewish state has proven politically and, in the
end, morally untenable”, “The “two-state” solution envisioned by all Israeli
governments since 1967…is simply unacceptable”. He calls for “an international
campaign for a single state.” The elimination of Israel. He denounced the
Annapolis negotiations of 2007-8 as a plot against the Palestinian people
against which the only resistance was Hamas, an organization whose charter calls
for Israel’s destruction.
Mel says she supports Israel. I believe her. But she need to realise that
supporting the boycotting of the produce of Israeli companies by the Co-op is
not a great way to show this.
In my original article I set out the constructive, positive, things the Co-op
could do in the Middle East instead of entangling itself in boycotts. I hope Mel
will look at these and reconsider her tactics.