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September 28, 2011

Israel: Turn on the boycott

Reuel S. Amdur

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On July 11, the Israeli Knesset moved the country into even more dangerous territory. Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston called the new law punishing Israelis engaged in boycotts against Israel or the West Bank "the threshold test for Israeli fascism." His article was headed "Israel's boycott law: the quiet sound of going fascist."

The new law, already being challenged before the highest court in Israel, provides that any person or organization engaging in such a boycott can be sued by the target of the boycott.  There is no necessity for the target to prove actual damages and the court is free to levy any amount of compensation.  As well, the law forbids a person or company taking part in such a boycott the right to bid on government tenders.

Reacting to the new law, the Israeli organization Peace Now listed the companies producing in or operating from the West Bank.  Most sell mainly in Israel.  Exceptions are the cosmetic manufacturers Ahuva and some wineries.  However, two multinationals are among the offenders: General Mills and Unilever.

If one wants to join the boycott movement, aimed at getting Israel out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these two multinationals are appropriate targets.  How to tackle the two is a problem.  Their products are numerous and ubiquitous. 

Consider–these are just some of the most common General Mills labels: General Mills, Pillsbury, Häagen-Dazs, Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Kix, Cheerios, Fiber One, Gold Medal, Yoplait, and Green Giant.  For Unilever, common labels include Lipton’s, Becel, Hellman’s, Knorr, Dove, Lifebuoy, Lux, Pond’s, Sunsilk, Vaseline, Sunlight, and Surf.  How does one tackle such a list?  While some people might religiously avoid all these products and more by these corporations, we cannot realistically expect everyone to do so.  Hence, a more user-friendly is to select a small number of products for attention.

In the case of General Mills, the choice is direct.  Peace Now indicates that the brand name operating in the West Bank is Pillsbury.  So be it.  For Unilever, a couple possibilities are Hellman’s and Lipton’s.  There are other brands of mayonnaise and tea available for the consumer. 

Okay, so don’t buy Pillsbury, Hellman’s, or Lipton’s so long as their companies are in the West Bank.  Simple enough.  However, the impact of what boycotters in North America can have on these giants is somewhat limited.  Arabs, Muslims, and other potential boycotters in North America, while not insignificant, may not make much of a dent in the balance sheets of these two economic behemoths.  For that reason, the word needs to go beyond our shores. 

These products need to be boycotted elsewhere, in Europe, the Middle East, and afar, if the pain is to be felt by these offending corporations, so let your friends and relatives overseas know of the campaign.  So far, pressure has caused some companies to close operations in the West Bank and move back to Israel proper.

As an aside, corporations are very protective of their reputation.  Image of the brand is a long-term consideration.  That was the motivating factor in Nestlé’s halting its aggressive marketing of baby formula in the Third World.  Would General Mills and Unilever want their label identified with oppression and exploitation?

So remember, no Pillsbury, no Hellman’s, no Lipton’s.  Pass the word, here and abroad.  The boycott movement is hurting.  That’s why Israel adopted such an extreme law.  Keep the hurt going.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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