Chocolate and the Palestinians

Submitted by martin on 20 August, 2011 - 1:26

The agitation about boycotting Israel which hit the headlines in April 2011 when Greens-controlled Marrickville council, in Sydney, decided on a boycott, has spurted again with pickets outside Max Brenner chocolate shops.

Max Brenner protest in Melbourne
Sympathy for the rights of activists arrested on these pickets will be automatic; but it does not follow that the pickets are a wise or effective way to help the Palestinians.

Nineteen people were arrested at a picket at 1 July, and four of the 19 were arrested again on 9 August for breaking bail conditions.

Similar pickets have been done in Britain. Marks and Spencer stores are frequently picketed by the Castroite Revolutionary Communist Group. There was a fortnightly picket of a cosmetics shop in London, Ahava, said to be selling products produced in the Occupied Territories, which ended with the shop's lease being terminated. In Britain, the police have generally stood aside, but in Australia some Max Brenner protests have seen heavy police intervention.

The Victorian Liberal government has approached the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate whether the activists can be charged under the federal laws banning solidarity strikes and pickets.

Marrickville rescinded its boycott before trying to enforce it, but the Max Brenner protests have rolled on, and extended into a campaign to defend people arrested on the protests.

The pro-Palestinian union network set up in early 2010, AusPalestine, has not commented on the Max Brenner protests, but has expressed support for boycotting Israel and applauded a decision by the Queensland Council of Unions to back a consumer boycott of Israeli goods.

The QCU linked its boycott call to support for a "two-states" settlement in Israel/ Palestine - the right of the Palestinians to have their own independent state, alongside Israel. AusPalestine does not endorse "two states", instead emphasising the "right of return" for the Palestinians (historically, traditionally, and logically identified with a programme of destroying the Israeli state, though maybe granting the remaining Jews some rights as a "religious minority" under the resulting Arab-ruled regime).

AusPalestine is endorsed by Kim Sattler (secretary, Unions ACT), Wendy Turner (convenor of the Left faction in the Queensland ALP), and John Sutton (former secretary of the CFMEU).

Counter-protesting, Paul Howes, secretary of the AWU, joined with various celebrities in a public hot-chocolate-drinking session in a Max Brenner shop.

"In a democratic society anybody should be allowed to protest, but I find it really distasteful that a Jewish business is being targeted in this way", said Howes. "If people are upset about the handling of the Middle East process then fine, but why don't they protest outside the Israeli embassy and direct their protest to the Israeli state rather than a Jewish business?"

Howes is a right-winger in general terms, and outspokenly sympathetic to the more liberal wing of the Israeli establishment. In this case, however, he talks sense.

The Max Brenner chain of up-market chocolate shops is targeted because it is Israeli-owned and boasts of its support for the Israeli army, expressed in such things as donating chocolate treats to army units. (In Israel that sort of thing is more mainstream than in other countries, because the army is a citizen army, with most citizens obliged to serve it).

The chain was founded in Israeli by Brenner himself, who now lives in New York, spread worldwide, and is now owned by a big Israeli corporation, the Strauss group.

Antony Loewenstein, a boycott supporter, has written that the Max Brenner is "a perfect target" for boycott activity.

The rationale is obviously not that lack of chocolate treats will cripple Israeli repression. It is that the pickets are a high-profile activity which convey colourfully to the Israeli establishment that its repression of the Palestinians is abhorred, and to the Palestinians (most of whom sympathise with boycotts of Israel) that they have international support.

There are at least four arguments pointing the other way.

1. History tells us that the response in Israel to such actions is a heightening of the siege mentality, and a consolidation of the majority of Israeli society around the chauvinist right wing, rather than an opening-up.

2. Although some supporters of the boycott and protests back a "two-states" solution such as advocated by the main secular Palestinian movements, the groups most active in the Max Brenner pickets, Socialist Alternative and Green Left Weekly, do not. They do not want Israeli politics opened up so that advocates of "two states" can win a majority there. They want Israel conquered and subsumed in a broader Arab-ruled state. This policy denies the Israeli Jewish nation's right to self-determination and has for decades been a blind alley for the Palestinians, pushing them towards reliance on Arab or Islamic states to "save" them by conquering Israel.

3. Socialist Alternative bills the actions as "Boycott Apartheid Israel! Boycott Max Brenner!", and Green Left Weekly defines the aim as "to target apartheid Israel, just as apartheid South Africa was targeted". There are apartheid-like features of the regime with the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, to which the answer is that Israel should withdraw from that (Palestinian-majority) area. Israeli Arabs suffer many disadvantages; but Israel proper is not an apartheid society. The boycott of apartheid South Africa was universally understood as a move to isolate and stigmatise the ruling elite in South Africa and its particular laws, to be coupled with extending links to the majority of the population in South Africa. The "apartheid Israel" trope is an attempt to isolate and stigmatise the whole of Israel, and to equate it with the ruling white minority in apartheid South Africa, as an element to be overthrown and subdued.

4. Whatever about the chocolate treats for Israeli soldiers, the Max Brenner chain is targeted essentially because it is Israeli and Jewish-owned. An extension of the boycott movement could not but become a movement against everything Israeli and everything pertaining to that huge majority of Jewish communities worldwide who instinctively identify (though maybe critically) with Israel. Whatever the original intentions of the boycotters, it could not but become an anti-semitic movement.

There are better ways to help the Palestinians. The focus on Max Brenner has led Socialist Alternative and Green Left Weekly to ignore the long-running Palestinian quarry workers' strike at Salit, and the explosion of strikes by Israeli workers, Jewish and Arab, in recent weeks. Solidarity with those struggles is a better way forward.

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