The BDS consumer boycott campaign feels hopelessly disorganized as soon as you try to step beyond the huge targeted campaigns, such as against Soda Stream or Hewlett-Packard. Unlike the Arab League Boycott, there are no simple set of self-consistent guidelines to determine what makes a product “boycottable”, and targets chosen by people often fail to reflect a sense of really having thought things through.
For example – McDonalds and Coca Cola. Are they boycottable? They both do business in Israel, but are they “complicit in Israeli violations of international law”? Paying taxes in Israel is to some extent complicity in these violations. Coca Cola goes farther and actually has a factory in an illegal settlement. However, McDonalds also in a sense “respects” a boycott against Israeli violations of international law by refusing to open locations in the occupied territories. Also, while Coca Cola is indeed involved in settlement factory activity, their main competitor – Pepsi – is a part owner of the Israeli company Sabra Hummus, which is itself a major target of BDS (due to being an Israeli export). So whether you support Pepsi instead of Coke, you are supporting Israel either way.
While guidelines exist, not only do they fail to give a definitive answer to the question of what qualifies a business to be boycott-able, it self-consciously avoids the question. The BDS movement website reads “Trying to boycott the products of every single company that participates in Israeli apartheid is a daunting task that has a slim chance of having a concrete impact.” However, to boycott companies (and countries!) that economically co-operate with Israel was the strategy adopted by the Arab league boycott against the Zionist movement which in 1946. According to the Israeli chamber of commerce and cited from a 1994 New York Times article, “the boycott has cost Israel $20 billion in export opportunities and $16 to $32 billion in lost investment”. Compare this with the cost to Israel’s economy from BDS, which is measured in the millions, rather than billions. While the current policy of many Arab League states is not to observe this boycott, this is not evidence that the boycott tactic itself is ineffective, rather it is evidence that American power has effectively neutralized Arab resistance against Israel.
“Trying to boycott the products of every single company that participates in Israeli apartheid” was in fact the policy of the Arab league boycott, which included a primary boycott (boycotting Israel and Israeli exports), a secondary boycott (boycotting companies that do business with Israel) and a tertiary boycott (boycotting companies that do business with boycotted companies). The BDS movement includes a version of the primary boycott (although it does not target individuals), and the secondary boycott (but only insofar as the companies “are complicit in Israeli violations of international law), and might include some version of the tertiary boycott when the engagement between companies concerns matters that sustain Israeli power.
BDS activists should clarify the Boycott of Israeli products in relation to the question of the secondary boycott. The notion of an “effective” or “strategic” target is a dangerous ground for hypocricy because it suggests the possibility of a situation where two companies which are equally supportive of Israeli crimes, but only one would be considered a “target” for boycott. The basis of a products boycott ability should be some standard of their degree of support to the Israeli apartheid system. Personally, I can’t see how we can draw any qualitative boundary between companies who participate directly in the occupation and security apparatus, and companies who merely help support and sustain the Israeli economy. The Israeli economy and the Israeli military-occupation machine are one and the same power system.
In my view, we should recognize that internal consistency is a part of the nature of activist solidarity – we shouldn’t make fun of people’s desire to be consistent. We should learn about the Arab league boycott in detail, and consider taking from it this sense of consistency in refraining from economic activity that strengthens the power systems that sustain Israeli crimes. Because…