After Tuesday’s highly anticipated vote on whether to vote for a boycott on Israeli products, it looks like the Park Slope Food Co-op will not be claiming a stake in the Middle East conflict after all. With 1,005 votes against the motion and 653 for it, the eco-minded, plastic-bag shunning folks of Park Slope will still be able to purchase the handful of Israeli-made items stocked in their members-only store, including vegan marshmallows and organic paprika.
But then, this vote was never really about achieving any change in Israel and Palestine. Instead, it was about cementing the desirable, brownstone-lined neighborhood’s self-styled image as a bastion of moral superiority.
Even the most impassioned boycottista would have to acknowledge that clearing a Brooklyn store’s shelves of a few items would be a symbolic act and would hardly put a dent in Israel’s economy or sway its leaders to sign a peace agreement. But, the boycottistas suggest, even if banishing Israeli marshmallows from West Brooklyn will not shake things up in the West Bank, the important thing is that the co-op could make a collective statement against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In fact, boycott supporters were primarily making a statement about themselves. Because, these days, being Against Israel and Caring About Palestine have become moral markers in some Western circles. In places like Park Slope, boycotting Israeli products is now a lifestyle choice, much like using canvas bags and shunning plastic, eating organic and avoiding “junk” foods, or recycling instead of just throwing away your trash.
That is why Tuesday’s meeting drew 1,700 people—1,500 more than the previous meeting record. The meeting had to relocate to a new venue, in nearby Fort Greene, and 45 minutes after it commenced, hundreds were still waiting to get in. Of course, the media hype most likely helped attract attendees and many also showed up to oppose the boycott. Yet it’s hard to see a discussion about any other country’s products drawing such crowds or inspiring so much moral posturing. And it would be no surprise if the issue comes up again in the future.
Beyond Park Slope, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has found considerable support in non-Arab countries. From Green Aussie politicians who recently tried to get Israeli products out of Marrickville, Sydney, to Gay Pride organizers in Madrid who banned an Israeli delegation after the Gaza flotilla raid, and British academics who never tire of passing motions on censuring Israelis, everyone wants in on the boycotting circus. The boycottistas tend to paint Israel as a uniquely wicked nation whose products and peoples are tainted and corrupting. The idea is that everything that comes out of Israel—whether it’s hummus, gay people or research papers—must be shunned.
In the process, the longstanding, messy Middle East conflict has been reduced to a comforting morality tale in which Israel is cast as the most evil nation known to mankind and Palestinians are patronized as helpless creatures in need of the caring intervention of Brooklyn eco-worriers. It is a comforting interpretation, because it serves as a clear-cut cause of good and evil, an issue that Western do-gooders can turn to when they feel the need to strike a moral pose. This is a cause that we can Do Something About without making big sacrifices; just say no to paprika. It’s a cause that we can fall back on as a quick and easy demonstration of our political credentials.
But while consumer boycotts do send a message—especially the heatedly debated ones—they are practically ineffective. The goods targeted by international boycott campaigns represent an estimated three to five percent of Israeli exports, the bulk of which is in components, like computer chips and mobile phone flash cards. Consumer boycotts can have effects on specific products (Ahava cosmetics and Jaffa oranges are two popular targets) and, during intensified campaigns, temporarily harm local producers (as happened during Israel’s 2009 incursion in Gaza).
But, overall, shoppers refusing to buy Israeli goods are inflating their own egos rather than deflating the Israeli economy. Boycott motions such as the one proposed in Park Slope are symbolic, a way for an assortment of grandstanders to show that they’re taking a brave, noble stand against Israel. It might be the PC, food co-opy thing to do, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste.