Concerned Consumers

Stick a Label On It, Israel

Hannah Weisfeld writes from London about the controversy in Britain about labeling products from West Bank settlements as such.

David Silverman / Getty Images

There is, apparently, much concern in Jerusalem over renewed attempts within Europe, led by the Danes, to force Israel to label products being exported from the West Bank with their place of origin. The goods are not party to the preferential EU-Israel trade agreement, and there is increasing pressure from consumers to know where the goods are produced. Here in London, the British government’s position is unclear: they have said they would be unlikely to initiate such an enterprise and do not want to be associated with any form of boycott, but have also indicated that if others lead, they may well follow. One thing, however, is absolutely clear: there is growing frustration within the Foreign Office at Israel’s apparent intransigence in relation to settlement expansion, and the EU is becoming more outspoken. This year, for instance, the EU changed the status of Modi’in to that of an illegal settlement.

We are yet to see the official response of the U.K Jewish community, but there are some very clear signs of what the position is likely to be. In 2009, the U.K. Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued a set of voluntary guidelines for U.K. supermarkets about how best to label products. The Jewish community produced a litany of counter-arguments in protest: it will lead to a full boycott—first of West Bank produce and then of Israel in its entirety (incidentally, this is the Israeli government line). The U.K. government caved to the demands of the delegitimizers of Israel. The 20,000 or so Palestinian workers employed in settlements will be greatly harmed, as will the thriving economy of the West Bank, and this will be bad for peace. It’s discriminatory—no other products from occupied territories (e.g. Northern Cyprus) are labelled. And so the list goes on. The brouhaha created in South Africa just a few months ago, when the South African government came out in support of labelling, resulted in the South African Zionist Federation taking the government to court. The incident was not ignored here by our establishment Jewish community. The Board of Deputies demanded a meeting with the South African High Commission to express their concerns.

But perhaps it is time to reframe our thinking on the issue?

What if our starting point was that there are many concerned consumers in the world wishing to know how and where their products are made. This is not an unreasonable request—it is a right. They choose fairly traded coffee and buy clothes that carry guarantees that they are made in decent conditions. ‘Ethical consumption’ is not a tactic applied by Israel-haters to Israel alone. It is the reason why several of our major supermarket chains only stock fair-trade bananas, and why Cadburys, our biggest chocolate producer, now makes it products with fair-trade chocolate. True, I don’t know of anyone asking to know whether their goods are produced in occupied Northern Cyprus, but let’s assume that is because it is simply not on the global agenda like Israel-Palestine, and the situations are hardly comparable.

We could then tackle the issue of whether it opens the floodgates to full boycott. One cannot deny that by labelling products, it creates an obvious next step that people then choose not to buy the goods at all. And then, perhaps it would become easier to make the case for a full boycott. But let’s put ourselves in the mind of someone who, as a result of labelling, chooses not to buy West Bank settlement produce. Now they can make a choice to buy from within the green-line. And it seems safe to assume that they probably were boycotting all products beforehand for fear of buying those created in the settlements. That may not sit comfortably with those of us who believe boycotts of Israeli products are counter-productive and do nothing to change the hearts and minds of anyone in the region, but that is the reality. The choice that a person makes to go into a supermarket, see a label, and not buy a product is for many people a simple way of showing solidarity or disquiet with a political situation, rather than a full-blown hatred of Israel as a Jewish state. No Israeli government machine, and no protest against labelling by the Board of Deputies, is going to convince someone who is angry with Israel for its on-going occupation of the West Bank, that they are doing something wrong when they don’t choose the wine from Efrat.

The situation in the West Bank is not set to change. If the election polls are anything to go by, we will see another term for Benjamin Netanyahu and his minions. This time they may just be slightly more right wing and more religious. So we should assume that Israeli presence on the West Bank will become further entrenched and calls for labelling will therefore get louder. Supporters of Israel do not need to support a boycott of the West Bank, but we should take a deep breath before we scream about labelling being the slippery slope to a full boycott and Israel being unfairly singled out. The ‘enemies’ of Israel inside the pro-labelling camp aren’t going anywhere regardless of who is in power—they’ll be there the day after Palestine is created. But these are not the people we should worry about. We must consider the average concerned citizen who sees his wallet as a form of political statement. Perhaps we should be highlighting the opportunity it creates: for people to buy products produced inside the green-line, when previously they refused to do so on account of not knowing their source of origin.

One thing’s for sure: the concerned citizens will grow in numbers, and if they cannot choose to not buy wine from Efrat, they won’t be buying Israeli wine at all.