The Futile Moral Satisfaction of Europe’s Settlement Label Gesture

Formalistic excuses for the labeling are all very well, but this is about politics — and Israel is both favored and discriminated against at the same time.

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A worker carries boxes containing wine bottles for export at Shiloh Wineries, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah November 8, 2015. Few issues have caused more friction between Israel and the European Union than EU plans to impose labeling on goods produced in Jewish settlements on occupied land. And if Israel is right about the timing, the tensions could get worse." Shiloh Wineries, which exports half of the more than 100,000 bottles of wine it produces annually, built its business around its West Bank location of Shiloh - the ancient capital of Israel before Jerusalem.
A worker carries boxes containing wine bottles for export at Shiloh Wineries, north of Ramallah, November 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The computer I’m writing this column on was almost certainly made in a cramped factory in the Far East, where the workers, some of them underage, are forbidden to belong to a union and work the kind of hours and in the kind of sanitary conditions that would be illegal in the west. Yet, despite the manufacturer’s ties to these massive sweatshops being well-documented, the only thing that I was concerned about when I bought their product was its battery-life and price. When I go into a wine-shop in Jerusalem, however, I will waver over the shelves of Cabernet and Merlot from West Bank wineries and finally choose a vintage from within the Green Line. Does that make me an anti-Semite?

I don’t believe in boycotting the settlements. If someone else opens a bottle from Bet El or Gvaot I’ll happily drink. This week, while visiting the Psagot Winery in my journalistic capacity, I made a courtesy purchase of a Viognier and a Shiraz before leaving. And I’ll happily buy anything bottled on the Golan if it’s good, which it usually is. I just prefer, when I have the choice, not to give my money to businesses whose existence I am opposed to politically. I wish Israelis weren’t living in the West Bank, in places which make the lives of the Palestinians much more difficult and the prospects of a workable solution to the conflict less likely. So I seldom buy their products. But, while in principle I abhor child labor as well, it doesn’t change my decisions on which Western or Asian product to buy. So in effect, I only discriminate against Jews.

The most valid of the government’s many arguments against the European Union’s decision to label goods from the settlements is the “what about North Cyprus” one. No such labelling guidelines exist for other border conflicts. And no, it’s not whataboutery to make that point, because you can dismiss whataboutery when its directed at the media, not when you’re asking why national governments choose to single out one particular border dispute for special legislation and disregard the rest. I have an excuse for my particular obsession with West Bank products — I live here and it’s my responsibility. But how to explain Europe’s obsession?

EU diplomats explained earnestly this week that, if anything, Europe discriminates in favor of Israel with preferential tariff arrangements and hundreds of millions in research grants and, anyway, the guidelines are just about informing consumers and not a boycott of anything. Israel itself has agreed in all its treaties with the EU that they are only relevant to the territory within the pre-1967 borders.

They’re right, Israel is in many ways a favored partner of the union, and yet. Europe may have less need of small Israel, but the trade and research deals are mutually beneficial. Formalistic excuses for the labelling are all very well, but this is about politics — and Israel is both favored and discriminated against at the same time. At the end of the day, the label which is really problematic isn’t the one that will from now say “Produced in the West Bank (Israeli settlement.)” but the one which will continue to say “Produced in Israel.”

Nothing about Israel can ever remain uncomplicated. It doesn’t matter what the Europeans say or actually think, Israel, even within the Green Line, remains an anomaly to them and will remain so for generations to come. Whether it is anti-Semitism, as many Israelis and Jews believe, or a less-definable sense of conflicted guilt, it is there. As it is for Israelis, nothing can just simply be produced in Israel. It has to carry the weight of history and abnormality with it.

The comparison made by Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday night between the labelling of settlement goods and the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany in 1930s is a travesty of history. Whatever you think of the new European guidelines, it is not a boycott of Jews. Netanyahu’s comparison is only slightly more ridiculous than that made between Israel and the case for boycotts against apartheid in South Africa. Greater experts than I on that period have already pointed out why the two systems of government are nowhere near similar, for all of Israel’s faults, and neither is there any prospect of a boycott on Israel ever achieving a political result.

Boycotts weren’t the main reason for the end of apartheid, either. Supremacist rule ended because it was nonviable. The whites in South Africa relied on black labor and their exclusive use of resources. International isolation, coupled with growing civil disobedience, would have brought down the Pretoria regime anyway. But Israel’s economy is self-sufficient and, if anything, it is the Palestinians who rely on Israel. A full economic isolation of Israel in today’s integrated global marketplace, in which nations in the Far East who have no patience for boycotts and sanctions are increasingly becoming major customers, is unthinkable. Israel can continue occupying the Palestinians for decades and its economy will still flourish. This isn’t a moral assessment, it’s simply business. Labels are just labels, they don’t define reality.

Labelling is bad, not because of any historicalresonance, but because they are a symbol of impotence and misplaced priorities. After all the time and money spent by European politicians in trying to help Israel and the Palestinians reach some kind of solution, this is what it comes down to. A few words on packaging that most consumers won’t trouble themselves to read. It’s a symbol of a Europe which can’t solve it’s own serious issues of immigration and integration and is helpless with other foreign crises. Yet it still retains sufficient arrogance to believe that this is the one conflict where it can make a difference.

Labels also symbolize Israel’s inability to gain the normalcy and legitimacy it craves. No matter how good its products are. It’s a failure even deeper than not succeeding (or not trying) to solve the conflict and end the occupation. Neither the Europeans nor the Israelis are capable of coming to terms with the fact that Israel can and should be a normal place.

Labelling won’t change anything. It will at the most cause negligible economic damage and perhaps put a handful of growers in the settlements out of business, probably not even that. It is an empty gesture caused by frustration. It is a hollow, meaningless victory for the Palestinians and their supporters, from which they will draw the wrong conclusions and will only cause the Israeli right-wing to dig deeper into its belief that the world simply hates us.

But the world really isn’t that bothered. I’ll continue buying sweatshop computers, what choice do I have? I’m a western consumer who at the most can derive a few seconds of meaningless moral satisfaction from choosing a more politically-correct bottle of wine. As meaningless as the next guideline from neurotic hapless Europe.