Ruth Tenne: Jews for Boycotting Israel: A New Initiative

By Ruth Tenne

The latest report of the International Development Select Committee regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territories (31 January 2007) makes for very distressing reading. In its section on trade, it refers to the ongoing restrictions in movements and access faced by the OPT, citing an OXFAM report which points out "that transaction costs for Palestinians wishing to export products are up to 70% higher than for Israelis exporting the same product. This market benefit is also true of products produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank who can get direct access to markets in or through Israel without the disruptive road blocks and back-to-back transfers faced by the Palestinians. In addition, Palestinians face a range of regulations which do not appear to be linked to security. Moreover, the Palestinians are obliged to rely on Israeli intermediaries to transport their goods and therefore, do not pay purchase taxes and customs to the Palestinian Authority, which creates further losses to the economy of    3% of   the   GDP a year. The report concludes that "the viability of a future Palestinian economy depends significantly on its trading opportunities."

 In order to challenge the stronghold Israel has on Palestine and its fledgling economy, a group of Jewish and Israeli residents in Britain was set up as a subsection of the campaign undertaken by Boycott Israeli Goods – BIG ( . The new group, J-BIG, is an outcome of the deep frustration Jewish peace activists feel towards the inaction displayed by the Jewish community and its liberal wing with regard to Israel\’s repressive occupation of Palestinian land. J-BIG members believe that Israel\’s policies "constitute a betrayal of the best trends in Jewish ethical tradition" and operate a form of racism which is reminiscent of South African Apartheid – inflaming hatreds that render impossible the achievement of a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. Like ‘Enough!’ – the new coalition of  trade unions, peace, faith and human right organisations in Britain-  J-BIG  believes that the British Government fails to stand up for the right of the Palestinian people and thus, calls for a consorted grass roots action. Along with the wider BIG campaign, members take part in direct action aiming to prevent the marketing and selling of goods and produce originating from the illegal settlements in the West Bank and from Israeli companies, especially those which are known to profit from the unlawful occupation.  J-BIG’s strength is in the fact that being Jewish, we are unlikely to encounter charges of Anti-Semitism, made frequently by the Jewish community against those who criticise Israel\’s policies. At the same time, we hope that our stance will act as a "wake- up" call for the Jewish community in Britain and offer some symbolic support to the Palestinians who tend to regard the Jewish community as a keen champion of Israel’s policies. We hope that our actions will help attract greater publicity for the BIG campaign.  Indeed, a recent picketing of Carmel- Agrexco, an Israeli marketing company, gained much publicity in the Jewish and Israeli press.

Carmel-Agrexco is a 50% Israeli state-owned export company which is responsible for exporting the majority of fruit and vegetables from illegal settlements in the West Bank to the UK. The UK forms a large part of the market for settlement produce, making up 60% of Agrexco\’s total exports. Agrexco profits from Israel\’s illegal occupation and entrenched system of racial apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories. In the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, Agrexco set its farms on confiscated Palestinian land offering Palestinian farmers less than a living wage. Carmel-Agrexco can deliver fruits and vegetables  to Europe in 24 hours while  the produce of Palestinian farmers  cannot  get through the illegal Israeli military checkpoints and has to be left to rot in the field .

The picket of Carmel – Agrexco took place shortly before Valentine Day when the demand for Agrexco’s flowers is at its highest. Although the number of those picketing was just above 100, the attendance of J-BIG attracted special attention by the Israeli press. Interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, Deborah Fink – the convener of J-BIG, contended: "This is a grass roots action. It is a way the ordinary person can put pressure on Israel… It’s also to tell Jews that what Israel is doing is wrong. What Israel is doing is going against Jewish ethics. Uprooting olive trees is against Jewish law" Although the representative of Carmel -Agrexco UK dismissed the disruptive action, there is no doubt that such an action has a cumulative effect which help to turn consumers and the public against Israel, whose 2006 bombardment of Lebanon,  "summer rain" shelling of Gaza and continued military incursions into the West Bank are etched in the public consciousness. Indeed, the results of a recent worldwide BBC’s poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries show that Israel is the most negatively viewed county. 56% of interviewees felt that Israel has a mostly negative influence on the world – a rating which is higher than any other country, including Iran and North Korea (Jewish News 8 March 2007).

J-BIG\’s campaign however, is not focused on one-off events. It is in the process of launching an ongoing campaign which will put pressure on supermarkets by informing them and their customers about Israel’s violation of human rights in the Occupied Territories, and of Israel\’s use of unethical and exploitative methods in marketing the produce of its illegal settlements in the West Bank – taking advantage of Palestinian labour and produce. In addition, J-BIG members will be requesting supermarkets to clearly label all goods which originate from the West Bank and Israel in order to help consumers make an ethical choice.

An additional aim of  J-BIG is to promote Palestinian produce, especially extra virgin, organic,  olive oil which is marketed by Zaytoun ( ) in accordance with the Fair Trade\’s code of practice. The olive oil comes directly  from the West Bank and from Israeli Palestinian farmers who suffer from restrictions on their land ownership and use of water resources in Israel, (for a full account of the restrictions and discrimination suffered by Israeli Palestinians see Susan Nathan\’s book:The Other Side  of Israel,2005).  J-BIG members are promoting the sale of Zaytoun oil by giving it greater publicity through the media and by direct contact with potential vendors. They also aim to improve the market penetration of Zaytoun by selling the oil directly to friends, family relatives and members of the public. Palestine is the origin of the olive tree with some of the oldest olive groves in the world dating as far back as 1500 to 2000 years. This  fact combined with the Mediterranean climate, rich fertile soil and the use of organic traditional farming methods makes Zaytoun\’s  Palestinian olive oil a world beating product, with which Israeli olive oil that is produced mostly from younger olive trees, will find hard to compete.

On a political level, members of J-BIG have joined the wider campaign for abolishing the special trade and economic benefits granted to Israel as part of its trade agreement with the European Union. Indeed a significant number of British MPs appear to support this campaign. In February 2007 an Early Day Motion (EDM ) submitted to Parliament by Derek Wyatt  notes that Israel  "has routinely prevented the free movement of Palestinian goods and people and has withheld Palestinian funds from their people. ….. These and other grievous human rights abuses represent a clear breach of Article Two of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which calls for adherence to human rights" . The EDM goes on to  commend the International Development Select Committee\’s  recommendation that "the UK should urge the EU to use the Association Agreement with Israel as a lever for change and to consider suspending the Agreement until there are further improvements in access arrangements".

J-BIG and other activists have been writing to their respective MPs and requesting them to support Wyatt\’s EDM. It appears that the number of British MPs who have been signing the EDM is indeed growing, and the campaign for bearing pressure on Israel is taking root. 

Being an Israeli-born citizen I  hope , like the rest of my colleagues, that our campaign of boycotting Israel\’s  produce of repression and "fruits of injustice" will  successfully  spearhead a grass roots  action within the Jewish community against  a brutal  occupation which seeks to stamp out  the Palestinians\’  legitimate  aspirations for nationhood .

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