Boycotting these Israeli companies won’t get you on any blacklists

Israelis from across the political spectrum are calling to boycott of two major companies for discriminatory practices against women and Ethiopians. But what about that one boycott Israelis will simply not abide?

An El Al pilot hangs out the window of one of the carrier’s planes. (Illustrative photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
An El Al pilot hangs out the window of one of the carrier’s planes. (Illustrative photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israelis, despite their vociferous claims to the contrary, do not fear the power of boycott. In fact, for many Israelis, boycotting companies that profit off discrimination and racism is an essential part of mobilizing against injustice and fighting for democracy. The past week has provided two salutary examples.

On Monday, the CEO of NICE Systems, one of Israel’s largest software companies, announced his company would boycott El Al after a recent flight from New York to Israel was delayed for over an hour because  some ultra-Orthodox male passengers refused to sit next to women. According to CEO Barak Eilam, “at NICE we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion.”

The threats bore fruit. Following Eilam’s comments, CEO Gonen Usishkin wrote on his Facebook page that El Al is “an egalitarian company regardless of religion, race or gender,” and that “In the future, a passenger who refuses to sit next to another one will be immediately removed from the plane.”

El Al has a well-known history of forcing women to change seats due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox men. Monday’s controversy occurred almost exactly a year after a Jerusalem court ruled that Israel’s national airline is forbidden from asking women to change seats to accommodate a man who refuses to sit next to her. Eliam’s threats to boycott is a sign that should El Al try to circumvent its legal obligations, “corporate responsibility” would hold it accountable. It stands to reason that other Israeli companies will follow suit.

On Tuesday morning, Ethiopian-Israeli employees of Barkan Wine Cellars, one of Israel’s most popular wineries, arrived at work to discover that they had been moved from the production line to other jobs on site. This occurred after Badatz, the ultra-Orthodox organization that has the mandate to certify Barkan products are kosher, questioned just how Jewish those black workers really are. According to halakha, or Jewish religious law, a wine must be produced by Orthodox Jews in order for it to be kosher.

The decision was immediately condemned by religious and political figures alike. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said there is “no explanation for such a directive other than pure racism. Ethiopian immigrants are Jews in every sense of the word.” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called the move “shameful,” while Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay said he would no longer buy Barkan wine and called upon the police to investigate the decision.

Head of the Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay attends a faction meeting in Knesset, June 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay attends a faction meeting in Knesset, June 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Yael German (Yesh Atid) joined the call to boycott Barkan, calling the company’s behavior “shocking and disgusting” and urging “anyone who cares about racism to boycott this wine until they apologize.”

Ethiopians in Israel face discrimination that affects nearly every aspect of their lives. Successive governments have tried to block their immigration to Israel, based on the Law of Return, relying on excuses related to their halakhic status. Ethiopians earn 30-40 percent less than Palestinian citizens of Israel. They are six times more likely to be stopped by police officers than other Israelis, and the brutality officers meted out to Ethiopian citizens of Israel has repeatedly brought them out into the streets in protest.

Mounted policeman hits a protester during an Israeli Ethiopian protest against police brutality and racism, Tel Aviv, May 3rd, 2015. Activestills.org
Mounted policeman hits a protester during an Israeli Ethiopian protest against police brutality and racism, Tel Aviv, May 3rd, 2015. Activestills.org

As of this writing, Barkan has not yet amended its policy toward its black workers. But the calls for a boycott have already spread from politicians to the public. It is hard to imagine that the company will be able to continue without facing additional, far more severe sanctions from the Israeli public.

Israeli society is certainly not unique when it comes to gender segregation or racism, and the fact that civil society and corporations have threatened to use power of the purse to fight El Al and Barkan should be applauded. And yet, the selective outrage over racism and gender segregation — and the alacrity with which Israelis respond — should give us pause.

After all, there is one kind of boycott that Israeli Jews, politicians and public alike, simply will not abide: the kind meant to put pressure on Israel to end 51 years of military dictatorship over the occupied territories.

Israeli BDS activists take part in an anti-corruption demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, December 9th, 2017. (Hagar Shezaf)
Israeli BDS activists take part in an anti-corruption demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, December 9th, 2017. (Hagar Shezaf)

The Israeli government has invested vast sums of taxpayer money in fighting the BDS movement, which seeks to put pressure on both Israel and the companies that profit from the occupation. This includes legislative initiatives against BDS, conferences to discuss how to stop the spread of its ideas, spying on activists, lobbying governments across to world to pass anti-BDS legislation in their countries, paying for anti-BDS journalism, attempting to forbid Israeli academics from supporting academic boycott, and compiling blacklists of and deporting BDS groups and supporters, and more.

But ostensibly liberal politicians like German and Gabbay, who call for a boycott of Barkan to protest the company’s racism, oppose boycotting Israeli companies that profit from the occupation. Why do liberal Israelis consider boycott an appropriate tool to combat racism and discrimination against Jews, even as they oppose those who call for a boycott of those who discriminate against non-Jews? This is the 10,000 shekel question with which all liberals who oppose the occupation must grapple.