Boycotts, burgers and illegal settlements 24/08/13

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune 24 August 2013
Lysistrata provides an old example of both a boycott and “making love not war” – a lesson which people the world over in whatever country would still benefit from relearning today.


As long-stalled peace talks between Palestinians and Israel splutter back into a form of life, Israeli intransigence over the building of settlements on Palestinian land across the 1967 borders remains the biggest obstacle to securing a lasting peace. By building at record levels what are internationally denounced as illegal settlements, Israel is creating facts on the ground that make a settlement based on the pre-1967 boundaries increasingly untenable. That successive Israeli governments should persist with this policy for the convenience of a relative minority of aggressive expansionist settlers tells its own story about Israel’s pure proportional representation system, which secures the settlers a major voice in government coalitions. The European Union has latterly applied pressure by officially restricting its economic dealings with Israel to the pre-1967 border, much to the consternation of Israelis who view any form of economic embargo as an attempt to delegitimise their state.

Interestingly, McDonald’s, the world famous burger franchise, which has 180 outlets in Israel, recently declined an offer to open a restaurant in a shopping mall under construction in Ariel, a vast settlement that juts deep inside the West Bank. The Israeli-owned franchise rejected the invitation, citing a long-term policy not to operate across the pre-1967 green line. “This has always been the policy of Dr Omri Padan [the franchise owner],” McDonald’s said. Padan, chief executive of McDonald’s Israel, was a founding member of Peace Now, the Israeli anti-settlement organisation.

Followers of the vaguely comical “Golden Arches Theory of conflict prevention” popularised by Thomas Friedman in the 1990s, which postulates that societies with branches of McDonald’s do not go to war with each other, may have an interesting time determining the implications of this decision for peace prospects. (Whilst Bolivia and Iceland stand out as countries which have seen the chain close due to lack of popularity, Pakistan and India have both had McDonalds branches since 1998 so it would be nice to imagine the theory worked.)

Predictably, settlers’ representatives have condemned the move and in turn called their own boycott of the chain’s restaurants. The present furore represents the latest link in a chain of sanctions called against Israel which date back historically to the Arab League’s conspicuously impotent boycott of Israel. With its increasingly high-tech diversified economy, Israel’s ability to resist economic pressure and to impose its military might on neighbours remains unparalleled. Pressure of the type exercised by the EU is thus wholly symbolic in impact. But the power of symbolism should not be underestimated. Gandhi’s salt and cotton boycotts against British rule in India had such a powerful moral impact that even Lancashire cotton workers, whose goods were a victim of his success, turned out in solidarity when he visited Britain for negotiations in 1931.

The cultural boycott of apartheid era South Africa (advocated by the ANC, the UK Anti-apartheid movement and official policy of the UK Musicians Union since 1961) played a huge role in expressing global outrage at the racist regime. Such was its power that after Nelson Mandela’s historic achievement in the early 1990s in parlaying his popularity on release from imprisonment into a peaceful transition to democracy true to the ANC’s founding principles, one of the most powerful acts of reconciliation occurred at the 1995 Rugby World Cup when Mandela donned the hated Afrikaner Springboks shirt to demonstrate his support for South Africa’s victorious team.

More historically, late 18th century and early Victorian century advocates of abolishing slavery held successful boycotts of slave-produced sugar and actively promoted “not made by slaves” labelled products in early examples of fair trade activism. Whilst individual boycott calls against companies can often have significant impact as major global companies like Starbucks and Google have shown by responding to public criticisms of their (legal) tax minimisation strategies, sanctions calls against states are rarely successful. For instance, the United States’s single-minded embargo against Cuba has achieved nothing to prevent investment by its allies from Canada and Europe or to disallow Fidel Castro from defying ten US administrations to choose the time of his own retirement. Likewise, the minority white UDI regime in Rhodesia defied British sanctions to such a humiliating extent that major UK oil companies in the ’70s including BP, which at the time was owned by the British government, actively participated in sanctions busting, until armed guerrillas ultimately forced the negotiations that led to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. The mercurial Myanmar military junta was similarly little put out by calls for sanctions, (which saw the likes of Nike leave Burma) after its regime prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from taking power after her election win in 1990.

Needless to say boycotts can be counterproductive. Notably, it ill-behoves advocates for human rights and better working conditions to enact boycotts that harm the livelihoods of the people or workers whom they are seeking to help. Hence, engagement with companies and countries usually trumps risking workers losing their livelihood via a boycott; just as people tend only to go on strike as a last resort so the pros and cons of proposed boycotts are closely debated. This is very much the case today with the Boycott Sanctions Divestment (BDS) lobby against Israel. Despite influential celebrity backers such as Desmond Tutu or Roger Waters, creator of Pink Floyds “The Wall,” who uses the symbolism of the celebrated album to campaign against the infamous Israeli security fence which winds its way through Palestinian towns, vastly limiting economic opportunity and freedom of movement, BDS lacks the support of the Palestinian leadership which fears it would have a negative impact on Palestinian development. Thus, it is that solidarity with Palestinians is more concretely expressed in Europe by support for fair trade products from the disputed territories coupled with calls for clear labelling of products produced on illegal settlements.

It is worth remembering that the apartheid boycotts did little to realistically undermine the regime’s ability to coerce opponents and resist pressure. And indeed towards the end, the great transition was significantly helped by the unlikely combination of Cuban soldiers (who helped grind the regime’s powerful army to a halt at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988) and an employee of a British gold company with major operations in South (Michael Young of Consolidated Gold Fields), who shortly afterwards facilitated covert talks between the ANC and the regime in the run-up to Mandela’s joyful release. So, both armed communists and publicity-averse capitalists deserve more credit than they get.

But without the anti-apartheid movement’s advocacy of boycotts, the question remains: would global companies have been persuaded as quickly of the business case for ending apartheid?

Long before the term boycott was coined during a tenants’ rights campaign in rural Ireland in the 19th century, with the shunning of Captain Boycott, land agent for an absentee landlord, the ancient Greeks premiered “Lysistrata,” a play by Aristophanes from classical Athens first performed in 411 BC. The play tells the story of a woman who seeks to end an interminable war between Athens and Sparta by leading all the women of Greece into withholding sexual attention and privileges from all the men until they make peace. It helpfully provides an old example of both a boycott and “making love not war” – a lesson which people the world over in whatever country would still benefit from relearning today. – See more at: