Opting for Boycott : Adapting Advice and Counsel Memoranda from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy – by the Editors of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice

The choice to boycott may seem drastic. But to the Palestinians whose land is being exploited for its natural resources, and to the migrant workers from countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, boycott may not be drastic at all; it may very well be a human rights necessity.

At the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), elected commissioners will vote on whether or not to boycott Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories and Hadiklaim (an Israeli date growers cooperative) for their “exploitation of Palestinian labor, Palestinian natural resources, and the Palestinian consumer market.”[1] The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and the Advocacy Committee for Racial-Ethnic Concerns, both propose broadening the concern to include all products from illegal settlements on occupied land, as is done by some in Israel, some international bodies, and the United Methodist Church. Yet the two companies provide a key focus, given their salience in the US marketplace.

Ahava’s main factory and its visitors’ center are located in the Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Shalem in the Occupied West Bank, using in its products mud from the Dead Sea, excavated in an occupied area, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Hadiklaim packing houses are located in the settlements of Beit Ha’Arava, close to the Dead Sea Coast, and Tomer, close to the Palestinian village of Fasayil. The overture explains,

Date picking in the Jordan Valley is a hazardous business. Workers are hoisted into the trees with a cherry picker and are often left to work on a platform high above the ground for the duration of the working day without meal or toilet breaks. The majority of workers are Palestinian or Thai migrants—who are uniformly paid below the minimum wage. (http://corporateoccupation.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/hadiklaim-in-the-jordan-valley/)

On May 2, 2012, while turning down a move to divest securities, the United Methodist General Conference voted to sanction and boycott Israeli products that come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is a public policy position that would reflect the consistent call of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to end support for the forty-five-year-old military occupation of Palestine. The growth of settlements supported by the Israeli government has increased settler population to more than 500,000 persons, making a two-state solution virtually impossible.

Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism and supporter of a general boycott of settlement products, maintains that “One of those simple truths is that holding territory in which one ethnic group enjoys citizenship, the right to vote, free movement, and due process while another ethnic group is denied those rights is unjust and corrosive of a country’s democratic fiber” (New York Times, 4/29/12, Book Review, p. 6).

If a boycott of settlement products were approved, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would continue to support commercial activity with enterprises in the State of Israel but not support the continuance of a military occupation and its attendant settlements and resource exploitation.

Boycott: Policy and Criteria
The PC(USA) has long endorsed the use of boycott, including the Nestle Boycott (concerning improperly marketed infant formula in countries lacking adequate clean water) and the Taco Bell Boycott (to increase farm worker wages). The Presbyterian church’s history of “selective patronage” and consumer boycotts is presented more fully in the booklet commended for study by the General Assembly Mission Council in 1979: “Boycotts: Policy and Criteria”.

That study notes that all “consumer spending reflects personal and group values,” and is thus broadly selective, while what it terms “selective patronage” is reflected in decisions not to patronize discriminatory businesses (such as in “Project Equality”) as well as alcohol, tobacco, and gambling enterprises.

The overture makes it clear that the two Israeli companies in question, Ahava and Hadiklaim, are being named due to their salience in the U.S. marketplace, but are not being focused on in isolation from other enterprises taking advantage of the conditions of occupation. Purchasers would be encouraged to look carefully at all settlement products. This is a position taken not only by U.S. Methodists but also by the General Council of the United Church of Canada, meeting this August.

The Canadian Jewish News reported the chair of the study committee, former Moderator David Giuliano, to have said, “To buy settlement products is the same as buying stolen goods; in other words, benefiting from the crime”. He added, however, “this is not a call for a boycott of Israel or Israeli products” (http://www.cjnews.com/?q=node/89927).

The 1979 boycott study provides criteria for engaging in boycotts and some theological reflection on how the church takes moral stands. Criteria include: consistency with church policy, lack of other alternative means of influence (such as shareholding and U.S. legislation), timeliness, effectiveness, impact on other aspects of our mission, and provision for review. These criteria are generally met by the boycott of Ahava and Hadiklaim products, as such nonviolent economic pressure is called for by both Palestinian civil society and broad ecumenical and evangelical groups of Palestinian Christians (in the Kairos Palestine document and more recent “Christ at the checkpoint” conference).

In terms of effectiveness, the Israeli government has passed various measures to prevent or hamper the boycott of settlement products. It has also been argued that both the Gaza blockade by Israel and the restrictions on East Jerusalem and the West Bank constitute boycott and sanctions against Palestinian goods. Thus, while there is little doubt that the boycott action would be timely, its effectiveness needs to be seen in a context where there is little likelihood of negotiations with the current Israeli government. In fact, all words-only efforts have not deterred the Israeli government from expanding settlements, including the purported “legalization” of three once “illegal” settlements in late April. Thus the boycott strategy may be an effective and very participatory way to support greater justice for the Palestinians, and seems to be regarded by the Israeli government and its supporters as a danger to their control.

At this relatively early stage in the Ahava and Hadiklaim boycott efforts, the strictly financial impact seems unclear. Yet even when companies do not lose major market share, they are concerned about damage to their reputation and its influence on retailers who carry their products. The principle behind the boycott would continue to hold: purchasing these products helps support a military occupation that deprives Palestinians of their land and freedom. Thus not purchasing those products is a form of practical integrity that applies moral standards to market relationships.


[1] https://www.pc-biz.org/IOBView.aspx?m=ro&id=3775

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