Last week, around 10,000 people from around the world arrived in Manchester, England, to participate in a five-day festival to mark the culmination of an United Nations initiative called International Year of Co-operatives.
The event, titled Co-operatives United, was organized by a coalition comprising the Co-operative Group, International Co-operative Alliance and Co-operatives UK. It was marketed as “an inspiring and fun filled global festival of events and exhibitions” designed to “inform and inspire everyone building an ethical economy and a better world.”
Also in attendance – but in much smaller numbers and confined to the rain and wind – were a handful of pro-Israel campaigners, including myself. We were there to protest the Co-operative Group’s boycott of the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. Over the course of three days, campaigners handed out nearly 1,000 leaflets, calling on delegates to reconsider the Co-operative’s stance on Israel.
The campaign was a quiet affair. There was no sloganeering or shouting. Nor was there any flag-waving or inflammatory language. Instead, we simply stood at the top of the steps outside the main entrance of the Manchester Central Convention Complex and gave out fliers. The only time we engaged in conversation was to answer questions from curious delegates and visitors.
The protest was a manifestation of the anxiety generated by the Co-operative’s recent decision to widen its boycott of Judea and Samaria. In April, the Co-operative voted to ban imports from four Israeli companies on the grounds that these companies traded with the settlements. The decision specifically affects four Israeli companies – Agrexco, Mehadrin, Arava Export Growers and Adafresh.
Since April, pro-Israel campaigners have put pressure on the Co-operative to reconsider its decision. A spokesperson for the Co-operative recently said the number of emails protesting the boycott has been surprisingly high.
Israel’s supporters say that the Co-operative’s boycott of settlement goods, plus the disengagement from four specific Israeli companies, is discriminatory because such actions single out Israel while ignoring other high-profile cases such as China’s rule in Tibet. Indeed, many pro-Israel campaigners have pointed out the hypocrisy of a policy that disallows some Israeli companies but permits products to be sourced from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia, which have genuinely repressive governments.
In a conversation with one of the Co-operative delegates, Manchester campaigner Bernard Rose stated: “To argue about the legality of the settlements is one thing. But to only single out Israel among all the countries in the world is unjust and discriminatory.”
The Co-operative, meanwhile, stresses that it still has supply agreements with some twenty Israeli suppliers that do not source from the settlements. But the company also states that it will continue to increase trade links with Palestinian-owned businesses in Judea and Samaria.
The response to our presence outside the convention complex was varied. Some delegates and visitors were supportive, while others proclaimed their support of the boycott and returned the leaflets. Many took a flier without comment. A very small minority of delegates and/or visitors were confrontational, with one elderly gentleman calling Israel an “abortion of a country.” At one point, we were asked by security to stop what we were doing because some delegates had complained. However, the event organizers (to their credit) said we were entitled to make our views known.
Following a morning’s leafleting, I took a walk around the inside of the conference hall, which was spacious, brightly bit and busy. The main hall featured exhibits by co-operatives from more than 40 countries, including Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and the “West Bank.” Sadly, there was no Israeli exhibit. So far, I have not been able to ascertain the reason for the absence of an Israeli stall. Behind the scenes, however, was an Israeli delegation, presumably taking part in the various workshops and meetings.
Despite the delegation, it is a pity that Israel was not included in the exhibition. After all, the Jewish state has a proud history of workers’ co-operatives, the kibbutzim being the most notable example. Even now, co-operatives account for more than 90% of Israel’s agricultural production. And it was Israel, of course, that developed the refined drip irrigation system which is now used by co-operative farmers around the world.
I left the conference with mixed feelings. One the one hand, there was some support for our cause. The event organizers were friendly and allowed us to carry on with our work regardless of the complaints. On the other hand, the fact that the Co-operative movement contains a number of people who are steadfast in their antipathy towards Israel, and the marked absence of an Israeli exhibition, were troubling.
Furthermore, given that Manchester boasts the second-largest Jewish community in Britain, it is a pity that so few people came to help the campaign. Perhaps the Jewish community is weary of having to defend itself in the face of so much anti-Israel rhetoric. Perhaps there is a feeling of resignation, that no amount of protesting will roll back the successes of the BDS movement.
Having said that, the fact that several people did volunteer to help (one of whom traveled up from London) was not overlooked by the Israeli delegation, which came out of the conference and thanked the campaigners for their support.
Volunteer numbers aside, I think most people in the Jewish community would agree that allowing the Palestinian lobby to go unchallenged is not really an option. An increasing number of supermarkets and other businesses are under extreme pressure from BDS crusaders, who are not afraid to lie about the settlements and slander the Jewish state. Comparisons with apartheid are grossly unfair and ignore the fact that the settlements are legal under the San Remo agreement of 1920, which instructed Britain to establish a Jewish national home on the entire land of Israel. Building Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria is also within the parameters of the 1922 Mandate of Palestine, which actually encouraged close settlement of the land.
Israel’s friends in the UK must do all they can to aggressively point out the errors of the boycott movement and deconstruct the lie about occupation, even if this means standing beneath a rainy Manchester sky to hand out leaflets. We cannot afford to remain silent or even on the sidelines. Not when Israel’s future is at stake.