Israel’s war with Hamas brings renewed focus to BDS movement and role of boycotts to effect change

As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, consumers and corporations are being drawn into the fight by way of boycotts and other forms of protest.

The violent escalation in the decades-long conflict has drawn increased attention on a long-standing movement known as Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) that seeks to put financial pressure on the state of Israel to follow international law and end what are seen as human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The movement took shape around 2005. But its ideological origins are older still and based on a previous, long-standing human rights and political quagmire: the South African anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s and early ’90s, when consumers around the world boycotted goods made in that country, and divested in shares from South African companies, putting enough pressure on the regime’s economy to help bring about an end to apartheid.

Michael Bueckert, the vice-president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, says he supports the BDS movement and the use of boycotts more broadly because they are an effective tool for achieving change.

“We saw it as sort of the best means available to us as concerned Canadians who are looking for ways to actually get involved and be proactive about ending Canadian complicity in war crimes and human rights violations,” he told CBC News.

That said, the efforts are meant to “target complicity in oppression. They don’t target any person, any company based on their identity or their nationality alone.”

Activists hold a sit-in organized by the Palestinian Youth Movement at Scotiabank’s headquarters in Toronto last month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

And much of what’s happening right now goes well beyond the scope of simply voting with your wallet.

Canadian book seller Indigo, for example, had some of its stores vandalized recently because the chain’s CEO heads a charity that provides scholarships for Israeli military personnel. 

Scotiabank was the target of a protest at the Giller Prize book award it sponsors, when activists unfurled banners saying the bank “funds genocide” because of its investment in the Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit.

The bank, for its part, told CBC News in a statement that it does not own equity in the company itself and merely holds shares as part of its “independently managed funds … on behalf of unitholders.” Nonetheless, the lobby of the bank’s Toronto headquarters was later occupied by an angry group of pro-Palestinian protesters calling for divestment. 

For Bueckert, the effectiveness of BDS-style campaigns depends on whether the companies being targeted are truly complicit in the actions of the Israeli government; They are not a licence for violence or harassment against members of any ethnic group.  

“It’s really important that when we are engaging in boycotts that we are very clear about our objectives,” Bueckert said. “There’s a big risk of being misinterpreted or having people … spin your action if you don’t have a very clear message.”

He says there are numerous examples of successful boycott campaigns, including a recent one against baked good company Pillsbury, which had a factory in the Atarot Industrial Zone inside an Israeli settlement inside Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem.

After a two-year boycott campaign, parent company General Mills decided to divest the facility in 2022 and declared that none of its products would be produced there going forward.

WATCH | Scotiabank and other companies facing consumer boycotts: 

Pro-Palestinian activists call for boycott against Israeli-linked businesses

Featured VideoPro-Palestinian activists are calling for a national day of action and boycott against businesses tied to Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Supporters of Israel call the movement antisemitic.

He says the BDS movement has always been “misrepresented … as if it was targeting businesses because they were Jewish-owned,” he said. “And that has never been true.”

But Noah Shack, vice-president of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto says Jewish businesses with nothing to do with the state of Israel are, in fact, being unfairly targeted. 

Jewish schools and businesses have been attacked and threatened, as have many Palestinians. In one high-profile example, a Starbucks location in a Toronto neighbourhood with a large Jewish population was vandalized with antisemitic imagery and phrases.

The chain isn’t even on one of the most commonly referred-to lists of quasi-official BDS targets but, regardless, Shack says it was a “deeply disturbing” example of what’s happening right now.

“Some of the language that was on the windows and on the doors spoke to some age old anti-Jewish tropes, talking about Jews drinking blood and killing children,” he said.

A young girl helps hold a Palestinian flag during a demonstration in support of Palestine in Vancouver on Thursday, October 19, 2023.
A young girl helps hold a Palestinian flag during a demonstration in Vancouver on Oct. 19. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Elsewhere, Jewish businesses large and small have been targeted with protests, violence and intimidation to the point where arrests have been made and charges laid.

“To have Jewish people intimidated like that, faced with those kinds of hateful messages while they’re just going about their daily lives trying to get a cup of coffee on the way to work, it’s just not on.”

“The Middle East is complicated, but what’s happening here isn’t,” Shack said. “Whatever you might think about what’s going on halfway across the world … these are Canadians who are being intimidated, having their livelihoods threatened because of their Jewish identity, and that is something that should concern us all.”

Little evidence boycotts even work

While current events are a new phase in the BDS movement, it’s not entirely clear if the current round of boycotts will be any more effective than previous ones built on other ideological lines.

Rhia Catapano, a marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, says while many groups see boycotts as a preferred method of effecting change, there is little evidence they end up achieving their aims.

“Boycotts work in terms of mobilizing media attention and creating a threat in terms of the reputation for companies,” she said, but there’s little evidence consumers follow through on all but a few of them.

“People are not always willing to follow through on those intentions, even when brands are acting in ways that are very much not aligned with their values.”

She says the Starbucks example is fascinating. The chain has frequently found itself in the middle of numerous social battle lines, from LGBTQ issues to allegations of union busting.

In 2018, the chain made headlines when the CEO vowed to hire thousands of refugees at a time when the first executive order by then-president Donald Trump temporarily banned travel to the U.S. from seven mostly Muslim nations.

“Conservatives responded by saying they were going to boycott Starbucks,” Catapano said. “Liberals responded by saying that they were going to ‘buycott’ Starbucks, or buy more from Starbucks.” 

As it turns out, neither movement had any sort of material impact on the company. “When we look at the data, in fact, people didn’t boycott or buycott — the main predictor of what they’ll do is just what they did before.”

The ongoing war comes with high emotional stakes for many people, and she says those tend to be the environments in which boycotts succeed.

“Boycotts are most likely to succeed when they are well organized and embedded in the communities that care about them,” she said.

“Where communities are more organized and the behaviours are more visible to others in your community, those are the cases where boycotts are going to potentially succeed in the economic sense of harming the business immediately.”

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