Boycott = anti-Semitism? Some Israelis Avoid Settlement Products Too

There are no official figures, but probably thousands of Israeli consumers check the labels before they buy.

Long before Scarlett Johansson came under international fire for promoting the West Bank SodaStream factory, these Israelis were getting their seltzer elsewhere.

And long before world Jewish leaders pronounced the international boycott movement anti-Semitism in its latest manifestation , these Israelis steered clear of products sold by Jewish-owned businesses located beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders.

It’s hard to know their exact numbers, but they are boycotters too, many for as long as they can remember: These Israelis do not, as a matter of principle, buy goods or produce from Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Vardit Shalfy, a theater director from Tel Aviv, not only checks every label carefully when she does her own supermarket shopping, but she also makes a point of alerting other customers who might not be aware that what they’re throwing into their carts was made in contested territory. “I’m absolutely shameless about it,” she acknowledges, “and very often, I get people to return products to the shelves. They simply didn’t know until I told them that what they were about to buy was made in the settlements and that by buying it they are supporting the occupation. Once, a woman almost smacked me, but more often than not, people listen.”

If she’s invited to an event where food is being served, says Shalfy, she has no qualms about calling over the chef to ascertain where exactly the ingredients in each dish came from. At the home of an acquaintance, she recounts, she once noticed her daughter innocently take a bite out of a cookie made by a factory in the East Jerusalem industrial park of Atarot. “I pulled it out of her mouth and reminded her that we don’t eat such things,” she says.

Netta Hazan, a facilitator for interfaith groups who lives in Jerusalem, admits she doesn’t take things that far. “I’m not going to lie and say that I check every label, and it’s not that I never drank something made with SodaStream, but if I know something’s made in a Jewish settlement, I won’t buy it,” she says. “On the other hand, I do make a point of buying things in Bethlehem in order to support the Palestinian economy.”

In 2006, Gush Shalom, the peace activist group headed by Uri Avnery, published a list of several hundred products made in areas beyond the Green Line. The list, comprised of many food products, also includes businesses operating in the Golan Heights. Among the best-known names on the list, aside from SodaStream, are the Ahava skin-care products manufacturer and the Golan Wineries.

In July 2011 the Knesset passed the so-called “anti-boycott law,” which penalizes persons or organizations who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements. A group of human rights and minority rights organizations, including Gush Shalom, petitioned the High Court of Justice saying it was unconstitutional, and a first hearing in the case was held last week.

After the law was passed, Gush Shalom, concerned that it might be sued for heavy damages under the law, removed the list from its website. But that same list is being hosted today on the website of the Israeli social-democratic movement.

Adam Keller, the spokesman of Gush Shalom, estimates that “tens of thousands” of Israelis who oppose the occupation boycott products from the settlements. “I’m basing that on the number of people who downloaded the list from our site when it was still up and the number who’ve signed up to receive our pamphlets,” he says. Two prominent cases of Israeli companies that moved their factories “back home,” as he puts it, in response to pressure from the boycotters are the Barkan wine producer and the Bagel Bagel pretzel maker.

Although Gush Shalom wholeheartedly supports the boycott of products made in the settlements, Keller notes, it does not support the BDS movement and its call to boycott Israel as a whole. The organization’s boycott initiative, he says, was prompted by a desire to make the public aware that being a peace activist is not only about attending demonstrations. “You can also help promote peace through your consumer decisions.”

After the anti-boycott law was passed, Israeli left-wing organizations that support a boycott of settlement products were certain they’d be sued left and right, says Keller. But it never happened. “To date, there has not even been one lawsuit filed,” he notes.

Longtime peace activist Naftali Raz, who heads the social-democratic movement Massad, believes the other side feared testing the constitutionality of the law. “My speculation is that they went to lawyers who told them they would be idiots to bring this to court,” he says.

Asked why not one suit was brought against those calling for a boycott of their businesses, Yigal Dilmoni, deputy director of the Yesha Council, the organization that advocates on behalf of the settlements, said: “The leftist organizations sitting in Tel Aviv have lots of money and time on their hands, and we do not.”

In response to the anti-boycott law, Raz organized a petition in July 2011 that was signed by several hundred prominent Israelis, among them former heads of the security services, former cabinet ministers, professors, scientists, artists and writers. In the petition, the signatories declared their support for boycotting products from the settlements and said they would be willing to sit in jail rather than pay any fines, should they be found guilty of violating the law through their endorsement.

Raz puts the number of Israelis who boycott products from the settlements at “many thousands.”

In the past few years, Gush Shalom and the social democratic movement have been joined by several Hebrew-language Facebook groups that support boycotting products from the settlements, the most popular being “Sue me, I boycott settlement products,” which had almost 8,500 followers at the last count.

As Keller notes, it’s not always simple to ascertain where a product has been made and now that supermarkets in Europe have begun to mark merchandise made in the settlements, many business have an incentive to cover their tracks. For some, it’s a simple as setting up an address or office inside the Green Line. SodaStream’s corporate headquarters, for example, are located right near Ben-Gurion International Airport.

“We put a lot of detective work into putting together our list,” he says. “We used to have a full-time employee who did all the research for us, but we can’t afford it anymore so it’s all based on volunteers. One of the tell-tale signs we’ve discovered with food products is the address of the Rabbinate providing the Kashrut certificate. If it’s an address in the territories, that’s a good indication to us that the product is also being made in the territories.”

Another problem, he notes, arises from “the overlap between those who oppose the occupation and those who are ethical about what they eat,” because many of the organic and free-range products found in Israeli supermarkets and specialty stores come from the settlements.

Roy Yellin, a media consultant based in Tel Aviv, says that just as he wouldn’t purchase products manufactured by child laborers or those harmful to the environment, he doesn’t purchase products made in the settlements. “As someone who lives in this country, I’m forced to contribute to the settlement enterprise through the taxes I pay which support the economy there,” he says. “So at least in this way, through the decisions I make about what I consume, I can refrain from making any further contributions.”

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders called the international boycott movement anti-Semitism, says Yellin, “I felt it was really important for people to know that there are people in Israel who support the boycott, and that it doesn’t mean that they’re anti-Semites but rather that they oppose the continued occupation.”

Tamar Zandberg, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz party, says her refusal to buy products from the settlements is “my own personal way of showing my deep opposition to the government policy that established the settlements and my refusal to be part of it.”

The recent “hysterical denouncements” of boycott supporters by Israeli government leaders, she says, “is like saying that the mirror is crooked when it’s your face that’s ugly.”

Asked to comment on those Israelis who boycott settlement products, Dilmoni said: “Those who embrace boycotts are those who have failed in every other way to get their political message across. Whoever supports a boycott against the settlements shouldn’t be surprised if ultimately the boycott targets them.”

He said the boycott did not have a “significant” effect on businesses in the settlements. “For every factory that moved out, others have come in their place,” he said.

Moti Milrod
AP