Lawrence Solomon: The new business battlefields

(August 28, 2014) Anti-Israel boycotts, unlike other anti-corporate activism, are counterproductive as well as ineffectual.


University of Ottawa students are now lobbying to ban U.S.-based Sabra Dipping Company from campus for its links to Israel.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

With fighting in the Israel-Gaza war at bay in the Middle East, the battle continues in the West — in supermarkets and at college campuses. In this political dispute, as increasingly in others, business is a battlefield for activists of all kinds.

The supermarket skirmishes over the Palestine dispute, most of which occurred in Europe, target retailers who carry Israeli products, and even kosher foods produced domestically. The U.K.’s Tesco supermarket chain saw a mob of protesters ransack a store, clearing shelves of Israeli products and demanding the chain cease doing business with Israel. To avoid that fate, a London supermarket, this one belonging to the Sainsbury chain, pre-emptively stripped its shelves of kosher products, including those produced in Britain. In the U.K., the police recognize many of the anti-Israel protesters — they’re the same ones who show up at anti-fracking rallies.

In North America, anti-Israel protesters use barcode-reading smartphone apps to identify Israel-related products. These free apps, first developed by young leftists to target products that contribute to the bottom line of the conservative Koch brothers (Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpets are among the offenders), also help consumers boycott companies over causes now in vogue, such as the labelling of GMO foods.

Canadian campuses are particular hotbeds of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity.

With summer’s end, the highly politicized campus front is about to open up. Canadian campuses are particular hotbeds of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity, with student unions at various universities and the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario division, representing 300,000 students, deciding to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. University of Ottawa students are now lobbying to ban U.S.-based Sabra Dipping Company from campus for its links to Israel. Sabra, a maker of kosher hummus that says it has never contributed “hummus or anything else” to the Israeli military, is half-owned by PepsiCo, the other half by Israel-based Strauss.

The targeting of Sabra for its links to Israel points to the student union’s desperation for meaningful action. Boycotting, divesting or sanctioning Sabra hummus could never bring Israel to its knees. Neither could boycotts of the entirety of Israel’s agricultural products, which represent a mere 2% of Israel’s exports. To hit Israel where it hurts, a boycott campaign would need to attack its high-tech sector — Israel’s lucre as well as its pride — but this boycott would be a non-starter.

Student union leaders can maybe exhort students to eschew hummus for the Palestinian cause without sounding silly. But they would positively be laughed off campus if they told students to take one for the team by giving up Google, which has two R&D centres in Israel. Likewise, iPhones, flash drives, instant messaging, voicemail and other products were in whole or in part invented in Israel. Students would sooner part with their university educations than with their smartphones.

Neither could student unions straight-facedly lobby university bureaucracies to stop using Word, Excel, and other products invented by Microsoft Israel, or to stop using computers powered by Israeli Intel processors. Virtually every major Western IT company relies on its Israeli R&D divisions or on Israeli patents in its operations. To ask society to cease and desist in using Israeli technology is to ask us to turn back the clock in worship of ignorance.

Since a principled boycott of Israel can’t be promoted effectively — placards demanding we throw away our iPhones would draw blank stares — the BDS movement launches unprincipled campaigns that rely on symbols and rhetoric, rather than rational arguments, to make its case.

Corporate boycotts to make political or ideological points aren’t new. Companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have often borne the brunt of campaigns decrying everything from globalization to American power, such as the European boycotts that occurred when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

A difference, and an irony, in the current campaigns targeting Israel, is that the more they succeed in intimidating Jews, the more they fail in their claimed goals of providing justice for Palestinians. The campaigns, often driven less by anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian fervour than by raw anti-Semitism, are escalating, as seen in the smashing of shop windows in a Jewish district of Paris and in physical assaults on Jews. The result is an increasing exodus of Jews from many European countries and into Israel, which increases Israel’s proportion of Jews relative to Muslims and decreases the fear that Israelis have of Israel eventually becoming a Muslim-majority country — it is this fear that drives the majority of Israeli Jews to want Palestinians to have a state of their own. The more that Israeli Jews lose the fear that they might one day no longer be masters in their own land, the less likely that Palestinians will ever achieve a state of their own.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute and a member of the advisory board of StandWithUs Canada. Email:

Further to this story:

Honest Reporting: Defending Israel from Media Bias quotes Lawrence Solomon’s article above for its report on the BDS movement’s (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) focus on Israel. See: Israel’s boycott-proof economy.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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