To the editor, Ethical Consumer magazine
As a new subscriber, I was looking forward to reading my first issue of Ethical Consumer magazine. Like most of your readers, I try to shop ethically — I buy Fair Trade products when I can, I bank at the Cooperative Bank, I try to buy products from unionized companies. In fact, I do a bit more than that. As the editor of the LabourStart website (http://www.labourstart.org), I help promote such unionized, ethical businesses as No Sweat Apparel and Powells Books, the unionized alternative to Amazon.com
I was intrigued by the title of the feature story in your current (November-December) issue. Entitled “Islamic Boycotts”, my first, instinctive reaction was — why boycott Islamic countries or companies owned by Muslims? Sure, we all oppose dictatorships and terrorism, but I don’t think we should punish entire countries’ economies. I know that I still plan to enjoy the occasional baklava at our local Turkish restaurant.
Imagine my surprise at discovering that subject was not actually Islamic boycotts but Jewish boycotts.
The entire two page article is about boycotts of Israeli and Jewish-owned businesses. It is in fact an uncritical essay in support of the Arab boycott of Israel which, as the author notes, began even before the state of Israel was born, back in 1945. (That is to say, long before there were any occupied territories, long before any Palestinians fled or were forced to flee.)
As the article correctly points out that boycott had its headquarters in Cairo and Damascus — the capitals of what were, I think we can all agree, brutal dictatorships. One can make the case (the author doesn’t) that the Arab boycott of the Jewish state inherited the mantle from the Nazis, whose boycotts of Jewish owned businesses a decade earlier were the prelude to the Holocaust.
The article concludes with a helpful list of various sites about the boycott of Israeli and Jewish goods, and as I looked over the article and the list I began to wonder — what on earth does any of this have to do with being an ethical consumer?
If I go into my local supermarket and I decide to buy fair traded bananas rather than the usual bananas — for which I will pay a premium price — that makes me an ethical consumer. But if I decide not to buy organic avocados today because the label says they were grown in Israel, that doesn’t make me an ethical consumer. It makes me a racist.
Let me explain why.
To choose not to shop somewhere because the owners are Jewish or Muslim is a racist decision. To choose not to buy a product because its producers are black or white or yellow or red is a racist choice. Let us not mince words: boycotts targetted at specific ethnic groups, pioneered by the Nazis with their “don’t buy Jewish” campaigns, are racist boycotts.
As the article in your magazine points out, Syria and Libya are still strong supporters of the Arab boycott of Israeli products. Are these “ethical” regimes? Should a magazine supporting “ethical” shopping be taking their side? Or, for that matter, taking the side of the Iranian regime, which in addition to denying the Holocaust is now racing forward to build nuclear weapons aimed at “erasing” the Jewish state. I wouldn’t have thought of these governments as the natural allies of our movement aimed at creating a better and fairer world.
None of this should be taken to reflect my views on the policies of the Israeli government. I have a long track record of opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and have long supported an independent Palestinian state. In my work as editor of LabourStart, I have helped run online campaigns in support of Palestinian trade unionists who suffer under the blows of a brutal occupation, economic hardship and worse.
I oppose the current Israeli government and am enthusiastic about the campaign being waged by Amir Peretz, the new leader of the Israel Labour Party and the former head of the country’s trade union movement, the Histadrut. Peretz is a vigorous opponent of the occupation and has been so for decades.
If I want to encourage an end to the occupation and peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, I do so by throwing my support behind the Israeli left and labour movements — and not by refusing to buy an avocado which was probably produced on a left-wing kibbutz somewhere.
Of course you could make the case that ethical consumers don’t buy from countries whose governments we don’t like. If that were the case, there would be a very, very long list of countries on our boycott list. We could start with Afghanistan, where violations of human rights are an everyday occurrence and down the list to Zimbabwe, where the government is a notorious human rights violator, and find very few countries in between with really good track records on human rights. In fact, it would be easier to make a list of the few countries which are sufficiently “ethical”. In the end, I guess we’d be buying only products from Sweden, but then again, it turns out that Ikea is not actually unionized.
If I weren’t going to buy products from countries which occupied other people’s land, or engaged in torture, I guess I’d have to boycott products made in the USA — or for that matter, in Britain. Your magazine, for example, is produced by the citizens of a country which has (in the past, and perhaps today) engaged in torture, and with whose foreign policies many ethical consumers might disagree. So if you don’t like the Blair government, your advice would be to boycott British goods? Including Ethical Consumer magazine?
I can already guess that one response to this might be — it was just one article. Just two pages out of forty. Except that your “closer look” at supermarkets elsewhere in the issue begins by noting how several (including all those you previously cited as being ethical) are the subject of boycotts by the “Boycott Israeli Goods” campaign. Which I guess means that it’s not just the view of the author of the “Islamic Boycotts” article — it seems to be an issue for the whole magazine.
Racist boycotts have no place in our movement. Racism has no place in our movement. I think it is time for “Ethical Consumer” magazine to pause and reflect on its support for anti-Israel, anti-Jewish boycotts — and to return to its true mission, which is to “promote change by informing and empowering the consumer.” I’d sign up to that.