LONDON — As two incidents in British cities over the course of the weekend sharply demonstrated, the campaign to delegitimize Israel can come down to the food on your plate.
First in Hodge Hill, a suburb of Birmingham in England’s midland, the local Birmingham Mail reported that one man was arrested when police and Free Gaza protesters clashed during a protest at a branch of the supermarket Tesco. The hundred-strong demonstration, which began outside the store, spilled inside and protesters with Palestinian flags caused some damage to stock and intimidated staff, an eyewitness told The Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile in Holborn, central London, on Saturday afternoon the branch manager of a Sainsbury’s store ordered that the kosher part of its chilled section be emptied, in response to a picket outside the shop calling for a boycott of Israeli goods.
Witnesses to the event asserted that the removal of the food was a move made in sympathy with the protesters. Colin Appleby, who photographed the empty cabinet, tweeted that a staff member told him, “We support Free Gaza.”
The supermarket chain asserts that this was not the case. Apologizing, a spokesperson for Sainsbury’s told The Times of Israel, “The decision was taken in one store only to move these chilled products to cold storage elsewhere in that store for a short period on Saturday as a precautionary measure during a demonstration close by. They were returned to shelf as soon as was practically possible. Our ambient (store cupboard temperature) kosher range was kept on sale in store throughout.
“As a non-political organization, Sainsbury’s would never take such a decision on grounds other than ensuring the quality or safety of our products,” he said.
Sainsbury’s – the third-largest supermarket chain in the United Kingdom with a 16.5% market share – has been the subject of a specific campaign of pressure led by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in unison with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement since February 2013.
The aim of the Sainsbury’s Campaign is “to use pressure from civil society, and Sainsbury’s customers in particular, to persuade Sainsbury’s to stop sourcing agricultural produce from companies which are complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and in its violations of human rights and international law.”
Complicity does not only mean produce grown in or by Israeli West Bank settlements, but any company “which supports the building, functioning or economic viability of illegal Israeli settlements through its core trading activities,” according to the campaign. This includes Mehadrin, the largest grower and exporter of citrus fruit in Israel, responsible for the Jaffa Brand of oranges commonplace in British supermarkets.
On August 2 – two weeks before the incident at the Sainsbury’s in Holborn – the Sainsbury’s Campaign organized a day of action outside branches of the supermarket, “to intensify the campaign to call on Sainsbury’s to immediately end its trade with all companies complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people.”
One person who participated in a recent action at a branch of Sainsbury’s was Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood and Shadow Treasury Minister.
At a pro-Palestinian rally in Hyde Park organized by Stop the War Coalition on August 9, Mahmood told the crowd:
Last week, I was with two-hundred activists at Sainsbury’s at Union Street in the center of Birmingham, and we laid down in the street and we laid down inside Sainsbury’s to say that we object to Sainsbury’s stocking goods from the illegal settlements and they must stop. And our action closed down that store for five hours at peak time on a Saturday. This is how we can make a difference. So please educate yourselves about the different boycott campaigns and get involved in them.
The flare-up at the branch of Tesco in Hodge Hill occurred in a parliamentary constituency which neighbors hers. In response, Mahmood condemned the damage to Tesco as “criminal behavior” while supporting the right to protest supermarkets, saying “peaceful demonstrations and protests play a large part in [being able to air ones views] and I have been on my fair share.”
She also said, “I make my point with my wallet and my words.”
Shabana Mahmood was not immediately available for comment. A Labour Party spokesman told The Times of Israel, however, “Ed Miliband has been clear that Labour does not support boycotts of Israel and we resolutely oppose the isolation of Israel.”
“Labour remains committed to a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution, international law and a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine,” he said.
“Having spoken to her, Shabana has made clear that she does not support calls for a boycott of Israel but supports the proper labeling of goods from the region as per the DEFRA guidelines,” said Labour.
Mahmood is not the only MP to call for some form of boycott or action in recent weeks. George Galloway, Respect MP for Bradford West, declared the city of Bradford in the north of England to be an “Israel-free zone” earlier this month.
He said in part, “We don’t want any Israeli goods. We don’t want any Israeli services. We don’t want any Israeli academics, coming to the university or the college. We don’t even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford, if any of them had thought of doing so.”
Galloway’s remarks are presently being investigated by police.
David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, in the wake of Galloway’s comments suggested that there had to be a “national movement” of boycotts.
“Why restrict it to a particular town? If you are going to do boycotts, divestments and sanctions simply for a particular city or part of the country, how is that going to do any good?” he said.
Ward recently apologized for having tweeted during Operation Protective Edge, “The big question is — if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? — probably yes.”
Currently the PSC is campaigning for an outright ban on products grown or produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as a boycott of companies that profit from such production.
“PSC have joined a worldwide campaign against Israeli agricultural export corporations in light of their deep complicity in Israel’s ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights. Thousands have written to the CEOs of your local supermarkets asking them not to use suppliers that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation, settlements and the wall,” the PSC state.
Some supermarkets already elect not to stock products from settlements. Britain’s fourth-largest supermarket chain, Morrisons, told The Times of Israel that “we don’t source any goods from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including the West Bank.” This is not a political decision however, a spokesperson for the supermarket said, but a business decision as their previous suppliers in the West Bank failed a standard audit.
Tesco – which is Britain’s largest supermarket chain with a 28.6% share of the market – informed The Times of Israel that “like all major UK retailers, we sell some products that are sourced from Israel. We do this in line with the government position on trade with Israel, and we mark all products clearly with the country of origin, so customers can make informed choices about what to buy.”
Indeed, it is the current advice of the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs that fruits and vegetables grown in the West Bank be labeled as such.
“The Government considers that traders would be misleading consumers, and would therefore almost be certainly committing an offence, if they were to declare produce from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (including from the West Bank) as ‘Produce of Israel,’” the guidelines state.
In reaction to the incidents in Birmingham and London, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a joint statement condemning any boycott of Israeli or kosher products in supermarkets.
“Our shops are no place for a political battle ground. As a society we should be bringing communities together. Importing conflict through produce on the shelves will not serve us, nor the prospects of peace for the Israelis or Palestinians,” said Gillian Merron, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.