Saturday, June 13, 2009

The trade union case against a consumer boycott of Israeli goods

This should provoke some debate ...

After years of bloody oppression and the appalling scenes of Palestinian death and suffering as a result of Israel's brutal assault on Gaza at the beginning of this year, we all want to do what we can to express our outrage, to stop this ever happening again and to support the Palestinians. It is important that we consider the most effective ways of doing this.

This could include demonstrations, supportive links with Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and campaigners, support for Israeli army refusers and other action. It could also include stopping arms sales to Israel or perhaps targeted boycotts of firms directly involved with violent, oppressive policies, but in my view, it should not include trade unions advocating a general consumer boycott of Israeli goods, which may be superficially appealing but which in practice could be counter-productive.

Here are some reasons why we should support solidarity not boycott:

1. Positive solidarity achieves much more than passive boycott. Moreover, a boycott can obstruct that solidarity. When the 'cultural boycott started, among the first targets were anti-occupation films, boycotted because they were made by Israelis.

2. As trade unionists, we should seek to help Israeli workers to get unionised, and to unite Arab and Jewish workers in tackling oppression. In contrast, a boycott of Israeli goods could drive companies out of business and workers out of work. Boycotting Israeli goods would punish Israeli workers for the actions of the Israeli government. This is not what trade unionism should stand for.

3. Many trade union and progressive organisations in Israel/Palestine do not want us to boycott Israeli goods (although some do), because they feel that a boycott would cut them off from international links and solidarity.

4. There are some Israeli products that we would positively want people to buy. For example, Sindyanna is an organisation led by women, supporting Arab workers in the Galilee region of northern Israel and Palestinian growers and producers from the Occupied Territories. Sindyanna also carries out community work, is linked with the Workers' Advice Centre, and wants trade unions such as ours to help their work by promoting their products.

5. A boycott of Israeli goods is divisive. The issue divides the Palestinian/Israeli trade union movement, and it divides trade unionists and campaigners in Britain. It would be much better for us to unite around positive solidarity.

6. Although the vast majority of people who support a boycott are sincere anti-racists and are not motivated by anti-semitism in any way, it is unfortunately the case that a boycott would be supported and latched on to anti-semitic groups and used to target Jews. It can also lead to people being boycotted simply for being Israeli nationals, and it is hard to see how this is not racist.

7. Pro-boycott campaigners want us to boycott products and companies including Disney, Marks & Spencer, Arsenal FC, AOL Time Warner, Intel (who make the processors inside most personal computers), and lots more well-known brands and products. Trade union which pass policy for a boycott should expect their reps to urge members to boycott all these. I think that union reps would prefer to inform members about the issue and encourage them to support protests and campaigns rather than give them a list of things not to buy.