Fighting back against Biased Boycotters of Israel
When W.H. Auden wrote his long poem, “The Orators,” it was years before biased and bigoted groups and individuals including anti-Semites had begun advocating a boycott of some kind against the State of Israel. But his lines “Private faces in public places are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places” are appropriate to the increasing practical response to the biased advocates of boycott of Israel, whether they are international businesses, so-called charity organizations, or ill-informed academic groups and personnel.
Private faces as well as unprejudiced organized bodies are fighting back against the discrimination against Israel and the outrageous lectures the state is given at the United Nations and other places by the non-democratic nations of the world. Recent examples of positive response by those standing for truth deserve commendation.
One is the immediate response on March 9, 2014 taken by the Norwegian Cruise Line concerning one of its ships, the Jade. The Tunisian government had that day prohibited all the Israeli passengers, about a dozen of the hundreds of tourists, on board the cruise ship from disembarking while the vessel was stationed the port of La Goulette in Tunis. All other passengers were allowed to disembark. The Cruise Line's message was unambiguous. It will not only cancel all its remaining port stops in Tunis, it will also stop all future port calls there. Moreover, the CEO of the Line in a strongly-worded statement said that the Line, which employs people of more than 90 different nationalities, would not tolerate such random acts of discrimination.
Boycotters of Israel should take note, since the Cruise Line Company executive directly addresses them. The company does not condone or tolerate discrimination of any kind and with its cancellations hopes to send a message to those who do, that such acts are completely unacceptable. The message is also meaningful for anyone contemplating a visit to Tunisia: don’t go. Instead, follow the Norwegian Cruise Line to Palma de Mallorca in Spain
An unusual response, and one that calls for replication, is a grassroots organization located in the British seaside resort of Brighton. It is called Sussex Friends of Israel (SFI) and is designed to challenge the BDS movement and those supporting a cultural and commercial boycott of Israel. This SFI has been active for about 18 months fighting bigotry on the street level. It has responded physically to the demonstrations and picketing that has taken place in Brighton three or four times a week by anti-Israeli activists. It has attempted to end the intimidation of Jews by the anti-Israel rhetoric of the protestors. These protestors have as usual used the fabricated Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood and have tried to persuade shoppers of what they have been told is the “apartheid “nature of Israel.
The physical confrontation between SFI and the pro-Palestinians has centered on one shop, the EcoStream store that opened in 2012 in central Brighton. The town was chosen because it is well known for its green politics: indeed its elected Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, is the only MP representing the Green Party. However, she is also a member of the British-Palestine Parliamentary Group. Not surprisingly, she was not helpful to SFI. In a letter to the local Brighton paper on October 9, 2012, she wrote, “it was right that local people are able to take a principled stand about the fact that SodaStream and its parent company Soda-Club operate out of an illegal Israeli settlement.”
The Brighton store, the first of its kind in the world, is indeed owned by SodaStream, the Israeli business that manufactures machines for making carbonated drinks. From the start the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and pro-Palestinian activists in the Brighton area have tried to dissuade customers from going to the store so the store would close. These bigots are apparently unaware that the store gets its supplies from Sussex farmers and local businesses.
The bigots also were unprepared for the independent, grassroots fight back from SFI’s rainbow coalition of people in the area, Jews, Christians, gays, lesbians, and others. They were also surprised by the successful weekly campaign that has garnered more than 5,000 approvals on the SFI’s FaceBook page. A photograph of one SFI poster was seen by more than 75,000, and by considerably more when a well-known celebrity tweeted it to another 200,000 people.
This gutsy action in Brighton strikingly anticipated the display of courage in the issue that erupted in February 2014 when Oxfam International expressed its bigoted position against Scarlett Johansson, one of its “ambassadors” who had accepted to be the global brand ambassador of SodaStream. Oxfam objected to the actress’ connection with SodaStream because of the firm’s factory that is located in Mishor Adumim, a settlement town just outside of Jerusalem. Oxfam has for some time opposed all trade with Israeli settlements because the charity organization considers them illegal. To her credit, Johansson courageously replied to the bullying of Oxfam, arguing that SodaStream, whose disputed factory employed hundreds of Palestinians, was building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestinians.
The Norwegian Cruise incident by chance happened in a week when poetic justice came to fruition. In April 2012 the British Co-Operative Group, an organization close to the British Labour Party, became the first major European major supermarket chain to end trade with companies that export goods from Israeli settlements. The Group extended its previous more limited decision to suspend trade with various Israeli companies.
The Group is now in trouble financially, and one would like to believe that this difficulty is due to its prejudiced behavior. The Group claims it is proud of its principled ethical standards but in reality its record is one of antithesis of such values. The former chairman of the Cooperative Bank, a branch of the Group, was recently caught paying cash for drugs and using “rent boys.” He had risen to the top of this anti-Israeli group despite his gross personal and sexual misconduct.
Aside from the personal peccadilloes of heads of the Group, the relatively new chief executive of the Cooperative Group, resigned on March 11, 2014 because of the losses of more than several billion pounds. He confessed that 2013 was the worst year in the history of the bank. In 2013 it suffered a £ 1.65 billion deficit; it is now over 2 billion. As a result, about 200 of the Group’s own supermarkets have been put up for sale. But that fact did not prevent the executive head from leaving with a £3.6 million salary package. It remains to be seen if the Group, perhaps in a state of remorse for its extravagance, will now reconsider its “ethical values” and remove its unethical boycott of Israel.
The actions of the Norwegian Line and the citizens of Brighton are a lesson in courage and illustrate the value in fighting back. The Norwegian Line and the SFI have gone beyond political and intellectual pronouncements and taken action against the hatred, bigotry, and perhaps anti-Semitism they encounter. Only firm, challenging actions can end the bigotry of boycott. It is encouraging in his admirable speech in the Israeli Knesset on March 12, 2014, British Prime Minister Cameron spoke both of the “poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism,” and of the prejudice of the UN General Assembly which in 2013 passed three times as many resolutions critical of Israel as on Syria, Iran, and North Korea combined. Perhaps that clear message will lead to action.
The new message is clear from recent British history. When Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, which sold Israeli products, were boycotted little, if any, direct counteraction was taken. The Brighton action concerning the EcoStream store is different and shows that fighting back is important and that it works. In addition to its successful challenge of the boycotters the SFI has widened the sphere of action by attempting to link with other regional organizations to counter the BDS movement.
The SFI have an interesting and challenging slogan. It says, “Any idiot can boycott a shop. Israel is the foremost leader in cancer research. Will the idiots boycott that?”
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.