Labeling of Settlement Products and BDS Are Two Different Things

To lump together the European Union's labeling of West Bank products with the boycott of Israel is to risk shooting oneself in the foot.

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Protesters against the BDS movement during the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York, June 1, 2014.
Protesters against the BDS movement during the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York. June 1, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Things are hectic right now in the old world. The leaders of the European Union have barely recovered from Greece’s attempted escape/suicide and they’re now watching millions of refugees bearing down on their borders, putting in question the hallowed principle of freedom of movement, while across the continent, politicians who would love to break up the union are gaining popularity and followers. But it seems that despite the chaos sometime next month, the EU will finally get around to issuing guidelines on labeling products exported by Israel that were made on settlements across the Green Line.

From a diplomatic and political perspective, this is of course a setback for Israel. After all, not only Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, but Ehud Olmert’s centrist one as well, fought for years to prevent EU labeling. But from any other perspective, this is great news for Israelis and supporters of Israel and it will be a blow to the tiny but voluble movement calling for the boycotting of Israel. Of course Netanyahu, at least in public, doesn’t see things that way. “We have historical memory and we remember what happened in Europe when they labeled Jewish products” is what he had to say about the impending move. I’m not sure how accurate that historical memory is, but let’s consider for a few moments what the labeling will actually do in the future.

West Bank of what?

For a start, it may make no difference whatsoever. There are already a few countries and large supermarket chains in Europe that label settlement produce. Actually, they label everything, after all localism and terroir and sourcing and provenance are all the rage in today’s upmarket Western food industry. So of course we want to know where the bananas are grown and how our tomatoes were harvested. Not long ago, in a fancy London supermarket I saw a bunch of fresh herbs with a sticker saying they were from the West Bank. The West Bank of what? It didn’t say. I wouldn’t be surprised if many customers thought it was a wine-growing region of France. And then there was the name of the farmer, because everyone now wants to know which hardy individual cultivated the sage and marjoram - Zaki. Who? Is this Mr. Zaki the rapacious Jewish settler or Abu Zaki, brave Palestinian son of the soil? What is a discerning north London foodie to do? Will the new EU labels give any more indication of the origins of products, and will anyone care?

But instead of seeing this as a blow to Israeli policy, why can’t the politicians see this as an opportunity? If every cherry tomato from the Jordan Valley has to have a label, why not use it as a message board which can reach every well-stocked kitchen across Europe? A few well-chosen words, perhaps a good biblical verse on our historical right to the land, or a picture of archaeological evidence of ancient Jewish habitation. And there you have it - a hasbara coup, courtesy of the European Commission.

While some government spokespersons have likened the labeling to the boycotting of Israeli (and Jewish) goods, it is the exact opposite. What it does is provide both consumers and tax authorities with information on which side of the Green Line an Israeli product was manufactured. This means that settlement produce will not receive preferential tariffs and some shops, or their customers, will shun them, but labeling denies the boycott movement one of its more useful tactics. The BDS ideology calls for the boycott of all of Israel, all Israelis, all Israeli brands, all companies that trade with Israel. And its stated objective isn’t ending the occupation of the West Bank, but ending the existence of a Jewish state. But since most of the potential audience will not support such ideas, BDS activists muddy the waters with talk of “occupation.” Labeling settler produce means that it will be much more difficult, nearly impossible to boycott Israeli brands from within the Green Line.

To save Israel from its own folly

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, an early proponent of labeling and one of the most pro-Israel statesmen in Europe, understood this instinctively. He knew that it would be much easier for Israel to defend its legitimacy and continue marketing its goods in Europe if a clear distinction was made between Israel proper and the occupied territories. That was seven years ago, and still the EU has waited this long, giving Israel chance after chance to effect some kind of breakthrough in the diplomatic process. It’s yet another example of how Israel’s friends are prepared to go to great lengths to try and save it from its own folly.

Netanyahu is right, we remember what happened when they labeled Jewish products in Europe. And it’s happening again. Kosher (not necessarily Israeli) food has been targeted by BDS activists in British supermarkets. In South Africa they placed a pig’s head in a kosher section of a store, and in Spain an American Jewish artist was forbidden from performing at a festival that bizarrely celebrates human rights. Boycotts are blunt instruments and a movement singling out Israel for international isolation, by design or by accident, will ultimately end up targeting non-Israeli Jews as well. Not every BDS activist is necessarily a Jew-hater, but in a culture in which being openly anti-Semitic is no longer fashionable, the “anti-Zionist” movement becomes the haters’ natural habitat. Where else would they end up?

So far they have had only a small handful of symbolic “victories” like the vote this week by that global trading power, the local council of Reykjavik, to boycott Israel. Labeling settlement products will render them even less relevant. But making sure that the boycotters remain their tiny natural size, on the margins of Europe, fringe fanatics with no real impact, means not labeling those in Europe who are on Israel’s side as Jew-labelers, when they are actually doing us a huge favor.

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