Boycotting: help or hindrance?
The other day the subject of hummus came up. I said I didn’t buy the brand ‘Sabra’ anymore as it’s made in Israel and this is a way for me to take a stand against the military occupation of Palestine by Israel. A conversation followed about the pros and cons of boycotting products and who it really hurts. Does it have a useful impact on a country’s unwholesome policies or does it, rather, have a detrimental effect principally on the people who live there who may disagree with their country’s actions in the same way that I do? I cited the significant part that the boycotting of South African goods played in helping to end that regime of apartheid.
BDS movement: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions
The argument about for or against can seem particularly complicated in this context as products exported by Israel might have been made in settlements where Palestinians work. Employment is hard to come by due to Israel’s continuing policy of expansion into Palestinian-owned land and oppression of their rights at every level. However, the BDS movement is Palestinian-led. It was initiated by Palestinians at grass roots level in response to the lack of a coherent and comprehensive strategy by those in power against the injustice of the occupation. And change is happening. Palestinian civil society organisations called for boycott, divestment and sanctions in 2005 as a way of uniting, and as a way of focusing non-violent pressure on Israel. Since then, there have been many significant shifts, including the Bill Gates Foundation cutting ties with G4S, a multinational company which, amongst other things, provides security services and equipment to Israeli checkpoints. Another multinational company, Veolia, pulled out of Israel completely in 2015. It is now looking likely that G4s itself will pull out.
Collective power v. state power
Another point raised when I was stating my case for not eating the ‘Sabra’ brand of hummus was that boycotting is only a worthwhile action if it is a policy endorsed at government level. I felt riled by this since, as far as I can see, governments typically have a track record of prioritising policies and projects for short term gain, usually for a small group of people. Anything that has a wider reach, benefitting communities further away from the seat of power, often seems to come about through policy change achieved largely by pressure from the people. There is a long list here, going way back in history, but examples that spring easily to mind include the suffrage movement, the US civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. The activism carried out by supporters of these causes all led to well-documented changes in policy and legislation which are now part of the fabric of our daily lives.
Personal sacrifice for greater gain
A further point was put to me in relation to whether it was worth stopping buying this particular make of hummus or not. I felt riled by this too but, more significantly, I felt a little heartbroken. The argument revolved around why I would give up something that I like and take pleasure in, that I enjoy eating, when it may not have any useful effect. The implication was that as human beings we tend to choose momentary sensory pleasure at the cost of longer term gain, that we cannot, and typically do not, put our individual selves aside for the greater good.
I didn’t know what to say in response to this. My lack of a coherent response felt a bit like failing to give a good answer to the easiest question in an interview: it seems so obvious you forget to state it clearly. And it doesn’t feel easy to respond well here either, because each layer that could be discussed in relation to this has so much to it. I will come back to it in another post soon; but for now, my answer involves this – that I feel in my heart that our actions do carry reverberations. Some of these lead, sooner or later, to policy change. But even where they don’t, or where this is not the desired outcome, the reverberations carry on sounding across time and space, offering some comfort where needed and communicating important messages, including these: that we’re not alone, we’re in this together; and change will come. I’m very happy to sacrifice a bit of hummus for that.