Greetings from the fresh food section: a perspective on BDS

For the last thirty years, Daphne Meijer worked as a reporter, radio-presenter and copy-editor for many Dutch media, specialising in Jewish affairs and Jewish history. Currently, she works as politics and lobby officer for Een Ander Joods Geluid in Amsterdam, a Jewish organisation that works towards a lawful and just peace between Israel and Palestine. She is also actively involved in local Amsterdam politics for GroenLinks, the Dutch Greens.

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All over the world, the Palestinian Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanction (BDS) movement of Israel has gained momentum. In some instances, its detractors have made it into a freedom of speech issue. In the Netherlands, BDS seems relegated to the produce section of the supermarket. The real issue at hand isn’t being discussed, opines Daphne Meijer: the call for the rightful return of the Palestinians to their homes.

The other day, my mother and a friend took the car to Nijkerk to visit an exhibition at the headquarters of the organisation Christenen voor Israel (CvI), the Evangelist Christian pro-Israel movement in the Netherlands. The photos shown dealt with the subject of aliyah, Jewish migration to Israel: pictures of people leaving, sometimes fleeing, their homes, and heading for the Promised Land. The two ladies also had a wander around the rest of the building, which was packed with all kinds of Israeli consumer products.

Supporting aliyah is a bulwark of the work that the Christian Zionists of CvI undertake to bolster the Jewishness of Israel. Their Protestant theology of religious love for the land of Israel and the Jewish people dovetails with an extremely pro-Israel political ideology. Through fundraising and the sale of Israeli knick-knacks, a lot of Christian money finds its way to Israeli projects, or maybe more aptly put: Zionist projects.

Let’s linger for a while at the produce section. In Nijkerk, my mother bought me a bottle of avocado oil from Israel. At least, I hoped it was from Israel, so I looked up the producer. The oil was bottled by a company, Grinfeld, which apparently has been run by the Grinfeld Avrahami family for seven generations. Which sounds nice, this mix of Ashkenazi Western Grinfeld and Sephardi Eastern Avrahami. All that time Grinfeld has had its factories in Rishon le Ziyyon to the southeast of Tel Aviv. However, I don’t know where they buy their avocados from. Grinfeld doesn’t mention it on their website. For now, I assume the avocados stem from the Israeli coastal plains, but I may be engaging in auto-hypnosis. Officially, it should have said on the label whether any materials originated from the West Bank. But Israel and Christenen voor Israel don’t use this kind of labelling, the political parties associated with CvI fought labelling tooth and nail.

In May of this year, a group of pro-Palestinian activists went to a Rotterdam supermarket to check if it stocked Israeli products, like dates and peppers. That a product is made in Israel may not be advertised on the label, but it shows up on the barcode. The barcode on Israeli products starts with 972, but the number doesn’t necessarily mean a product from Israel proper; it could also be imported from a settlement. The activists checked the barcodes of certain foodstuffs and labelled them accordingly. They were obnoxious and crude and the other shoppers were annoyed, but the activists managed to receive a lot of publicity and attention. In Parliament, the leader of the Reformed Protestant Party SGP inquired whether this behaviour was a criminal offense. When, a few weeks later, pro-Palestinian activists checked out a pro-Israel booth in a supermarket in the Dutch town of Krimpen a/d IJssel, the same politician demanded a formal response from the minister in charge, in writing.

“The fight for human rights and political agency in Palestine is taking place in the fruit and vegetable aisle”

These recent moments are representative of the state of the debate about the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions Movement in the Netherlands. Whatever the BDS-proponents that set up the movement saw as their goals, in this country, the public debate focuses not on the ‘S’ of official sanctions or the ‘D’ of disinvestment, but about a narrow definition of ‘B’: the labels on wine bottles, avocados and sweet peppers. The fight for human rights and political agency in Palestine is taking place in the fruit and vegetable aisle.

To the uninitiated ear, all calls for a boycott of Israeli produce, services, technologies and artists sound alike, as well as all calls to foreign companies to disinvest, and all calls for sanctions. The ear, however, isn’t that uninitiated anymore. The BDS movement is at its heart a Palestinian movement. It first called for non-violent opposition to the Israeli occupation in 2005. Since then, the founders have made large strides, not the least in opening up their movement to many non-Palestinians, and in pulling BDS onto the world’s stage. The world’s public opinion is becoming familiar with BDS and what it wants, its non-violence and its comparison to other, successful boycott and sanction movements.

To opponents of BDS, it constitutes the face of contemporary anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Israelism. The relationships between the Jewish people, Judaism as a religion or a religious civilisation, the Israeli citizen on the Israeli street, and the government that governs the Israeli people, are much more complex. Israel represents these relationships as harmonious. By the contemporary Zionist movement, the connection between each individual Jew and Israel is framed as holy, eternal and reciprocal. Criticism of Israel, therefore, in this view, reflects back on all individual Jewish people both in- and outside Israel. I think this is both incorrect and disingenuous, to blanketly equate criticism of the State of Israel’s policies with anti-Semitism against Jews, in order to stifle critical voices about policy. Although, it must be said, some anti-Zionist criticism takes inspiration from old anti-Semitic tropes and somehow sounds disturbingly familiar.

This similarity is shown in the examples given in this text by anti-Semitism scholar David Hirsch. I don’t fully agree with Hirsch’s conclusions, but he gives some convincing examples and in his broader body of work on the subject, he makes some good calls.

In other countries, the debate about the legitimacy of BDS is by now being waged in the courts. Detractors and proponents of BDS have made the issue into a matter of free speech: is one allowed to call for a boycott, disinvestment or sanctions of Israel? Or should this call be censored? And on what grounds? Israel and Zionist organisations are very involved in the legal battle against BDS, as well as other efforts to quell BDS.

For a strongly pro-Israel view on this controversy see this commentary. A view from the other side is presented in this article.

I’m rather soft-core on the matter. I don’t buy products from the settlements. It’s my job to call out companies that do, in one way or the other, or who invest in companies that are profiting from the occupation. BDS is, in my view, not only a civil society call to refrain from eating goats’ cheese or hummus from the settlements, or buying Teva shoes or Ahava cosmetics; it’s mainly about companies that profit from the occupied territories handily lying next to Israel. To too many companies the territories are a source of cheap labour and free natural resources, not to mention a dump site. These companies use the territories as a space to peddle their past-sell-by-date food stuffs and medicines. European and American companies are guilty of the same elsewhere: the difference is that they have to move their produce across a larger distance, to the shores of Africa, Latin America or Asia. The territories and the Palestinian people trapped inside them next door from Israel, are a space to use freely: as a shooting range for newly developed weapons or as a laboratory for improved surveillance technologies. I oppose this. Let the settlements and the lands be a burden to Israel, so that politicians make the only smart move: to clean up, to leave and to fix.

“To too many companies the territories are a source of cheap labour and free natural resources, not to mention a dump site”

This is a broader call; it surpasses the foodstuffs in the supermarket. But wine, or hummus, seem to be the only tool to engage people at this moment. As a subject of political discourse, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long outlived its welcome. The conflict has been going on for so long that everything has been said. The pervading emotion is tedium at having to hear the same arguments again and again. It shows in the limited interest the general public takes in the subject.

When, last May, the Dutch Parliament in The Hague discussed how and when the Dutch would implement the EU-directive on the labelling of products from the occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights, some people had actually bothered to show up to demonstrate. A delegation from CvI from Nijkerk was present, together with some other staunch supporters of Zionism. They took the bullhorn and equated the labelling of products from the settlements to the yellow stars Jews were obliged to wear during the Holocaust. Once they had left the square next to the Dutch Houses of Parliament, the Palestinian solidarity movement got their moment to roll out their banners and flags. An onlooker would have come away with two highly conflicting points of view: Israel being loved by God over other peoples and as such a worthy recipient of unconditional love and support, and Israel being an Apartheid perpetrator of unspeakable horrors. There is no middle ground here – that space is occupied by the 98 percent of Dutch people who may or may not care all that much about the issue.

“Let the settlements and the lands be a burden to Israel, so that politicians make the only smart move: to clean up, to leave and to fix”

Members of both groups will meet up soon, at another demonstration, booing a speaker that they disapprove of, or at a booth with Israeli or Palestinian produce, and online of course. Personally, I like activists and I prefer them to non-activists any day of the week. I like people who feel a passion for a cause and I appreciate their willingness to sacrifice their time and effort to birth the change they wish to see. To the cause of the Palestinians, this local activism on the streets and in the supermarkets may well be completely useless.

BDS is a tool. It’s a means to an end. Encouraging companies not to invest in the Israeli occupation is a strategic move to ensure something else. Everyone can guess what that is: an end to the occupation. But one aspect remains unspoken, and I suppose it’s because the Israelis have so far managed to keep it out of the broader public consciousness. BDS wants a right of return for all Palestinian refugees that were dispossessed in 1948 and 1967.

“The Palestinians actually returning to their former homes is still too difficult to envision for many Israelis and foreign sympathisers”

In mainstream Zionist ideology, this thought is so difficult and inherently dangerous that it can barely be formed inside someone’s skull. The Palestinians actually returning to their former homes is still too difficult to envision for many Israelis and foreign sympathisers. Many proponents of Zionism will not enter the theoretical realm where this vision is acknowledged. Acknowledging the Nakba as an historical tragedy for which Israel should take legal and practical responsibility is the defining, game-changing step that needs to be taken.

That may happen, if enough people apply enough pressure. But it is an extremely difficult, uphill battle, to get the Palestinian right of return on the agenda. For many reasons, I know, but one is the inertia of the people of Europe, who think this is just a tedious unsolvable mess.

I support the call. That is to say: I support the right of return, as a legal and economic empowerment strategy that will give the Palestinians leverage to negotiate and, as a part of their negotiations, extract reparation payments from the Israelis and the Israeli allies. Which Palestinian families will actually be able to return, physically move back to their own lands and their own houses, isn’t clear to me. After 70 years, that might in many cases not be feasible. Let’s not dream a Luddite dream here: the Israeli coastal plain is basically concreted over. I would want for the Palestinians that were uprooted from Lydda or Haifa to have their legal and historical rights restored, but their fields have become motorways and housing projects.

Then again, as a Diaspora Jew, I don’t have a place on this particular table. I can only support. And I sure wish I could do more than look at a label on a box of mangos.

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