PennBDS – Consumer Boycotts

I’ve written a number of times on the subject of consumer boycotts, and anyone interested in more information and case studies can read about them in the Divest This Guide.

To start off, boycotts were rather slow in coming to the US where BDS campaigns focused on divestment for most of the last decade, specifically trying to get well known institutions such as colleges and churches to buy into their Israel = Apartheid propaganda program.  Consumer boycotts played out much more in Canada during this period, but they traveled south and got built into the overall BDS target set, especially once divestment proved to be such a bust.

An irony of consumer boycotts directed at Israel is that the only reason the BDSers have so many products to target is the very success of the Israeli economy the boycotters working for over ten years to undermine.  Twenty or even ten years ago, an Israel hater would have to drive for hours to find an Israeli product not to buy, and even then they would struggle to locate anything beyond wine and oranges.  Today, however, not only is Israeli technology behind the scenes in virtually every computer the boycotters use to build their web pages and write their press releases hailing the latest tuba player and puppet troupe to boycott the Jewish state, but Israeli brands are starting to find an established home on the store shelves of major retailers.

Some of these continue to be food items (such as the Israeli couscous you’ll find at Trader Joe’s), but brands such as Ahava and SodaStream have been increasingly finding premium positions at upscale retailers such as Williams Sonoma, Macys and Best Buy.

As mentioned previously, consumer boycotts can be either personal or institutional.  In the case of personal boycotts, consumers are encouraged to not buy particular brands of products for political reasons.  Generally, this is not a direction the BDS folks tend to go, not least because announcements that an individual or group of Israel haters is no longer buying Israeli products would elicit a “so what else is new” response, rather than a headline.  And this makes sense since one person making individual decisions not to buy Israeli couscous for political reasons is no more remarkable (although certainly no less so) than ten Israeli supporters deciding to buy the same couscous for opposite political reasons.

But since BDS is essentially a tactic to try to make news, the targets of consumer boycotts have been retailers, such as Bed Bath and Beyond (which sells Ahava beauty products) and Trader Joe’s (which sells the aforementioned couscous).  The trouble for BDSers begins with the fact that these retailers are sophisticated institutions with their own legal and marketing departments who understand full well that they are being asked to affix their name (i.e., their brand) to someone else’s political agenda.  Which is why the rejection rate of boycott requests directed at such retailers currently stands at 100%.

With retailers unwilling to play along, the boycotters have chosen a strategy of protests and stuntwork to try to draw people’s attention to their cause, organizing pickets and song-and-dance protests outside of retail shops or taking their clothes off and smearing themselves with mud inside department stores.  The problem with this approach (in addition to bewildering or appalling the public) is that it is easily countered by the effective tactic of Buycott (i.e., Israeli supporters shopping en mass to buy out Israeli goods targeted for boycott).

The beauty of the Buycott tactic is that it allows Israel supporters to undermine a boycott protest through the simple and low-risk tactic of asking people to go shopping (vs. the effort the boycotters have to go through to organize an event and the risks they take if they decide to become disruptive or even break the law).  Nowhere was this contrast more apparent than in downtown Toronto in 2009 where an attempt to picket a liquor store selling Israeli wines turned into a street party where Israel’s supporters danced in the streets drinking “boycotted” wine they had just purchased en mass while the BDS types were forced to slink out into the night in defeat.

With direct and indirect attacks on major retailers proving so problematical, the boycotters did stumble upon one subset of food sellers they could try to work their will upon: food co-ops.  These are smaller, cooperatively owned retailers, many of whom serve and are run by the type of progressive-minded thinkers for whom the BDS message has been crafted.

But even here, efforts to get food co-ops to strip Israeli products from their shelves has been rejected again and again by co-ops in places like Seattle, Sacramento and Davis, California (i.e., by the very progressive communities the BDSers insist must support their boycott agenda).  In fact, the only co-op that ever enacted a boycott (the Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia, Washington) did so only because the BDS cru managed to get the organization’s leadership to pass a boycott vote behind the backs of the co-op’s membership.

We will be talking more about Olympia once we get to a PennBDS session dedicated to that community.  But the final take-away from that boycott (which is still in place) is that it has served as an iconic example to other co-ops throughout the nation of what not to do when BDS comes knocking at the door.

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