Labeling Settlers – and Their Products

How does the EU plan to label products from the Occupied Territories really help principled consumers, when on the ground the situation is too complex to boil down into a list of kosher places and non-kosher places?

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

I’m all for consumer choice and ethical consumerism. Consumers have a right to know exactly what they’re buying, exactly how it was made, and what the political ramifications of a purchase might be. For that reason, I really ought to support the European initiative to label products produced over the Green Line as such. Many consumers around the world do not want to support the Israeli occupation of lands conquered in 1967. They deserve to know whether their money is bolstering the Israeli economy in general or the occupation in particular. This is relevant information.

And yet, the ethics of consumerism is centred around the notion of informed consent. A transaction is only valid, on this conception of justice, if both parties understand all of the relevant information before they give their consent. If you sell me a car without telling me that it breaks down every five miles, then my consent was not informed. The transaction should be void. Likewise, if I buy an item from you knowing that you’ve set the price way too low, and if I withhold that information from you, then I, as the consumer, have withheld relevant information from you, which significantly undermines your consent for this transaction.

The central question is this: how much relevant information have you really been given once you know that product was produced over the Green Line? There’s a temptation to simplify the geography of the regional conflict, to the extent that the Green Line becomes the bottom line. If something is on the east of this line, it is sacrosanct territory of the Palestinians; only on the west of the line can land be legitimately claimed by the Jews.

Unfortunately, this oversimplification is both false and damaging.

Before 1948, Jews legally and rightfully owned property all over British Mandate Palestine. Equally, Palestinian Arabs legally and rightfully owned property all over Mandate Palestine. Forgetting Biblical and theological claims, both national communities, given their legal settlements of modern times, had as much of a claim to Haifa as they did to Hebron. They still do. As it is now, the only solution then was to divide this land into two states. Both sides would receive something, but neither side could receive the entirety of its homeland because this homeland is the home to two distinct peoples. The two-state solution was already prefigured by the 1947 partition plan.

This plan was rejected by Arab leadership at that time, given their hope that they could crush the Jewish state militarily. This gamble didn’t pay off. As a result, Israel grew. The land on offer to the Palestinians shrunk from the partition plan to the Green Line. But the Green Line is a terrible border. The UN deliberately stopped short of calling for Israel to withdraw completely to that line – Lord Caradon, British ambassador to the UN, later explained in an interview given in 1976 to the Journal of Palestine Studies: “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4th, 1967 [the Green Line], because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers of each side happened to be on the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them, and I think we were right not to” This conviction underlines Obama’s formula – the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. The Green Line is a good starting point for negotiations for pragmatic reasons, but it isn’t magical and it won’t be the final border. The Green Line is not the bottom line.

So the oversimplification is false. It’s also damaging. The majority of Jews living beyond the Green Line do not belong to extreme political fringes (for demographic indications of this fact, click here). In fact, only a minority of them are religious Zionists engaged in some messianic struggle for the Greater Israel. Most of them live in blocks of settlements that could quite easily be assimilated into Israel proper as part of Obama’s mutually-agreed land exchanges. Of course, the settlements shouldn’t be allowed to expand before and agreement is reached, but their very existence isn’t an obstacle to peace. Unlike the minority of radical settlements that are located in remote areas of a projected Palestine, most settlements are near to the Green Line and are populated by people who would vote for a two-state solution and the end of the occupation, as long as it wouldn’t make them homeless or unsafe. Many of these settlements don’t contribute to the evils of occupation – such as the mining of natural resources and the imposition of imposing security arrangements.

When you treat the Green Line as a magical bottom line, you write off thousands of potential allies for the two-state solution. You haven’t told me much when you’ve told me that your product was produced over the Green Line. Maybe you’re an extremist in an illegal outpost engaged in lawless attacks on Palestinians. Or, maybe your parents legally and rightfully owned property over the Green Line in 1948, and perhaps they were slaughtered in a massacre there, and in 1967 you, their orphan, came to resettle their kibbutz – just as the survivors of Deir Yassin would have done had the Arabs won the Six Day War. Perhaps you vote for progressive parties and employ Palestinians and take great concern for their welfare. Perhaps you’re an anti-occupation activist for a two-state solution. How would I know? I can tell you one thing: I’m a settler, and I’m not a racist colonialist.

Likewise, when you buy from Israel proper, perhaps you’re buying from a right-wing Israeli racist who uses all of his earnings to support the continued occupation. Just because he lives in Israel proper, you can’t know that he’s a responsible player in this conflict. Netanyahu lives in Israel proper, and I don’t trust him to make peace.

I would support the labeling of West Bank goods if I thought the information was really relevant. But it isn’t. As it stands, I don’t oppose the suggestion. I just don’t think it really helps any sort of principled consumer stance. The situation is too complex to boil down into a list of kosher places and non-kosher places. Instead, we merely serve to write off hundreds of thousands of potential allies for peace by treating the Green Line as a bottom line.

The conflict between Israel and its neighbours is so very difficult to solve precisely because there are no obvious bottom lines. It doesn’t help anyone to pretend that the situation is simple. It merely makes some woolly-hearted liberals feel better to boycott Israeli cabbages – and I say that as a woolly-hearted liberal. A real solution can only emerge from a recognition of the real complexities at the heart of our two peoples’ historic struggle. Let’s pray that a stark recognition of those complexities on both sides will give rise to a peace that is stunning in its simplicity.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.



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