There's a Better Way to Boycott Israel Than Making Palestinians Pay the Price

The BDS movement should focus on the battle for world public opinion rather than on economic campaigns that chiefly punish Palestinians themselves.

Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner
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An employee fills plastic bottles with instruction notes at the SodaStream International Ltd. factory in Mishor Adumim, near Jerusalem, Israel, Aug. 17, 2011.
An employee fills plastic bottles with instruction notes at the SodaStream International Ltd. factory in Mishor Adumim, near Jerusalem, Israel, Aug. 17, 2011.Credit: Bloomberg
Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner

There are a lot of people out there who are not doctrinaire leftists, and who would like to do something that actually makes a dent in the occupation.

The problem is that the only movement that’s making such a dent is BDS, and the BDS movement is dominated by the doctrinaire left, whose rigidity and blindness can be seen in its signature “success,” which will become complete at the end of this month.

BDS was instrumental in forcing the closure last year of the SodaStream carbonated drink-maker plant in the West Bank and its relocation to the Negev, safely within the '67 borders. SodaStream gave about 500 Palestinians some of the best industrial jobs to be had in the West Bank, paying them about three times what they would have gotten at a Palestinian-owned factory, plus health insurance, plus company buses to and from work.

SodaStream tried to get work permits for all 500 of its Palestinian employees to commute to the new Negev plant, but the government granted only temporary permits to 74. On February 29 those permits run out, and the last of SodaStream’s West Bank employees will go home, Yedioth Ahronoth reported last week.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum laid out the situation: "We were the biggest employer of Palestinians in the West Bank We were providing livelihood to nearly 6,000 people - the employees and their families."

Of all the Israeli-owned companies to boycott, SodaStream should have been about the last. BDS is supposedly trying to help the Palestinians, but the movement cost 500 of them the kind of jobs that are exceedingly rare where they live. I agree that the occupation is immoral, but did they have to pay the price? Couldn’t BDS have passed on SodaStream and concentrated their efforts elsewhere, say on companies where maybe Palestinians weren’t working?

But Sodastream was a visible target, its products are on sale at big stores in U.S. and British cities where BDS has many followers, and when Scarlett Johansson became the company’s pitchwoman, SodaStream became the movement’s cause célèbre. Then the plant in Mishor Adumim closed. Victory! Five-hundred Palestinians on the street? The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

And BDS is still boycotting SodaStream. The BDS website refers to SodaStream as "one of Israel’s most notorious export companies". In a post from December 2015 it says, in praise of a Portuguese retailer who had removed SodaStream products from its shelves: “The decision came after pressure from campaigners pointing at SodaStream’s appalling human rights record against PalestiniansDespite the company having closed down its factory in the illegal West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim, it remains complicit with Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Bedouins in the Negev. Campaigners worldwide have vowed to continue the boycott of SodaStream for as long as it continues complicit in the[se] plans.”

The new plant is located near the Bedouin city of Rahat, in an industrial zone jointly controlled by Rahat and two Jewish local authorities. The former mayor of Rahat, Fayez Abu Sehiban of the Islamic Movement, told me local Bedouin had no dispute with the state over the land where the Sodastream plant was built. He also said that not only wasn’t Rahat opposed to SodaStream being in their midst, the city had urged the government to help the company resettle there as an answer to the town’s terrible unemployment.

About a third of the Negev plant’s 450 workers in this startup stage are from Rahat, Abu Sebihan said, and many more are expected to be hired. His only complaint was that SodaStream was also bringing in workers “from Be’er Sheva, from Netivot, even from Jericho” – these last being the 74 Palestinian workers whose permits are about to run out.

How does he, a Negev Bedouin leader in the Islamic Movement, feel about cooperating with a company targeted by the BDS movement and run out of the West Bank? “One man’s trouble is another man’s deliverance,” he said.

Meanwhile, the campaign against SodaStream continues. If BDS is as successful against the factory in the Negev as it was against the one in the West Bank, maybe the next relocation will be to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

But as rock-headed – and hostile to everything connected with Israel – as the leadership of the BDS movement is, that doesn’t mean the tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions are wrong in principle or necessarily ineffective. In principle, they’re justified and can help build opposition to Israel’s rule over the Palestinians.

But people who want to make a dent in the occupation must understand that ultimately this is not an economic campaign, but a battle for world public opinion. And no boycott of Israel has affected world public opinion, or rattled the Israeli establishment, like Stephen Hawking’s no-show at the 2013 President’s Conference in Jerusalem.

When an internationally revered figure turns away from Israel in protest against the occupation, it has much greater resonance than any consumer or academic boycott. It brings the BDS tactic from the fringes into the mainstream. Also, it doesn’t cost anybody, Arab or Jew, his job. What’s needed is for other global heroes to follow Hawking’s example.

On that basis, I think the order of the day for the anti-occupation movement is to call on Beyonce not to perform in Tel Aviv.

Beyonce is the greatest female icon in pop music since Madonna, and her image as a politically aware performer was much enhanced on the Sunday before last by the black power theme of her Super Bowl halftime show. If she were to see the light and bow out of her August concerts in Hayarkon Park, reportedly in the last stages of negotiations, it would damn sure bring BDS tactics into the mainstream.

This is the sort of boycott that opponents of the occupation who are turned off by the BDS movement as a whole should be able to support. If you’re serious about fighting injustice and saving this country, it’s not enough to cite the tactics that are out – you also have to cite one, at least, that’s in.

Larry Derfner is an Israeli journalist and copy editor at Haaretz.

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