Thursday, January 22, 2009

Should business boycott Israel?

With all the excitement in Washington over Barack Obama's inauguration, it may be tempting to put to one side for a little while the continuing problems in Gaza that so occupied the public and media attention throughout the last month. But one person clearly not watching Obama's swearing-in ceremony was the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who spent the day visiting the Gaza strip and Southern Israel. As the world's media widely reported, Ban, standing in front of the smoking rubble of a UN building described the scenes as "heartbreaking", and condemned the destruction as "outrageous, shocking and alarming".

It was an important and symbolic visit by the UN leader who was careful not to take sides in his condemnation of the "excessive force" used by both Israel and Hamas. And it clearly serves to highlight the fragility of the current ceasefire and the need for more determined resolve in finding a lasting solution to the problem. But the burning question, of course, is how can genuine progress to be made in such a complex and volatile political situation?

One suggestion recently put forward by the Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein is that businesses and consumers should take a role in addressing the conflict by actively boycotting Israel. Citing the Palestinian campaign group Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Klein argues that "economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal." And she is not just talking about economic sanctions at the governmental level, but at the level of individual consumers and businesses too.

In fact, her two main examples of anti-Israel boycotting are both business-level actions: first, her own decision to switch publishers in Israel from a commercial publishing house to a small, anti-occupation acivist publisher; and second, a British telecom company, Freedomcall, which had recently sent an e-mail to the Israeli tech firm MobileMax saying "as a result of the Israeli government action in the last few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business with yourself or any other Israeli company."

Boycotts against Israel have been mooted, or activated, by academics, journalists and others in recent years - typically to storms of controversy. In the US, companies participating in anti-Israel boycotts can even be fined. However, recent developments in Gaza have clearly prompted a fresh look at some of these tactics by some, although specific instances of boycotts by western companies still appear to be very rare. Our very unscientific search only came up with one other report from the last two weeks - of a London-based Pashmina company which had joined a voluntary boycott on Israel due to "the horrors committed by the Israeli army". However, Ethical Performance also recently reported on Unilever selling its stake in a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement on the West Bank – but also noted that despite the protestations of campaign groups, had done so as part of a broader divestment process from non-core business rather than any "ethical considerations".

Similar protestations of what Klein calls "cold business calculation" are also evident at Freedomcall, where the managing director is quoted by her as saying "We can't afford to lose any of our clients, so it was purely commercially defensive." Such amoral language and the refusal by business to acknowledge that they are also involved in politics is not unusual. But what is unusual is Klein's appararent readiness to accept that business should be taking an active role in state politics, depsite (or even because of) their focus on commercial self-interest. The author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine is better known for criticising the role of the private sector in the public domain.

It seems unlikely to us that too many companies will feel comfortable joining an anti-Israel boycott, whether for commercial or political reasons. Why? Well, the ethics are simply too contentious for most business leaders to be comfortable making that kind of a call. Apartheid-era South Africa, or the current situation in Burma have a degree of moral consensus that presages corporate decision-making in a way that the problems in Gaza do not. Yes, maybe business leaders should be encouraged to stand up for what they believe in, but this is less likely to happen when they think their customers and other stakeholders might not agree with them. If even Ban Ki-moon is so careful in choosing and balancing his words of censure, corporations will no doubt tread even more carefully. Only concerted efforts by consumer groups and NGOs will be likely to change their views on whether a political boycott makes good sense. For better or for worse, that is the cold hard logic of business that Klein will have to recognize.

Photo copyright Tom Spender


  1. To prevent inappropriate postings? Meaning those with which you disagree I presume - well I guess I will find out.

    Of course Unilever took its divestment decision as a result of campaigning pressure. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the Company's psyche will know that ethical-based criticism is the one thing it can't stomach.

    But, writing as someone very familiar with the situation on the ground I have to challenge very strongly the strategy being put forward by those who see the action Unilever has taken as being a good thing.

    The majority of the factory workforce is Palestinian. Their future, and that of their constantly traumatised families is now very uncertain. At best they will in the future be employees of a local entrepreneur of some kind; someone who will not be interested in concepts like minimum wage legislation, and probably will not even have heard of healthy and safety standards. At worst, and in all likelihood, they will be out of a job. Out of a job in a deprived area, in which their chances of securing new employment, let alone a job with as responsible an employer as Unilever, are practically nil.

    Try talking to these people about how great a step forward it is for the Palestinian people that Unilever are withdrawing and you will get looks of bewilderment, sometimes of anger. The greater good, keeping a longer term perspective - these are the arguments of the comfortable and the well-fed, sitting wagging their fingers in their North American or European armchairs. Back in the real world, a responsible Western multinational employer leaves the local scene, and life gets that little bit tougher for another 60 families.

  2. This could be another example of the importance of BDS. I would presume that until the BDS movement really pick up, companies that boycott or divest will not openly admit that they are doing so on ethical grounds.


    What you can do to help

  3. Thought you might find this interesting:

    The world's stupidest Gaza boycotts

  4. The argument of 'moral consensus' is presented as to why business leaders will not boycott the State of Israel. This argument is simply not supported. The global moral consensus is one which overwhelmingly stands against Apartheid Israel - demonstrated by countless UN resolutions and international public opinion. Moon's careful choice of words perhaps has less to do with business ethics, than a fear of stepping on the toes of US political and economic support of Israeli Apartheid. Crane and Matten present a simple 'might is right' argument which pits powerful conservative and Zionist business interests against an emerging movement where universities (now in Europe and the US) have joined consumers in the boycott of Israeli Apartheid. Of course, the 'business case' for ethics will be made as the BDS momentum grows, as did the anti-Apartheid BDS campaign against the South African regime once did. But this has nothing to do with responsibility nor does it have anything to do with ethics, does it? No, sadly, on the subject of Israeli Apartheid Matten and Crane are talking business, and nothing else.


Have some thoughts you want to share about this post? We would love to hear them, so comment here (all comments will be moderated to prevent spam and random acts of advertising)...