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Does Boycotting Israeli Products Work?

“While the war initiated by Israel on Gaza Strip following the attack of Hamas on October 7 continues, mass protests have started worldwide. These protests and the ongoing boycotts have not been particularly successful in altering the course of the war.

Traditionally, calls for boycotting companies associated with Israel have been made for years when diplomatic efforts fail. The goal is to pressure Israel into retreating in the war through economic pressure. The question arises whether the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, aimed at stopping the oppression against the Palestinian people, is effective in its boycott calls against Israeli products.

BDS aims to end international support for Israel and pressure it to comply with international laws. Inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, BDS, a movement led by Palestinians for freedom, justice, and equality, calls for compliance with international law and supports this movement. BDS has recently gained increasing interest in Islamic countries for supporting the Palestinian cause.

When state pressures on Israel prove ineffective, companies and institutions around the world help Israel apply pressure on Palestinians. BDS’s recent tangible example was Hewlett-Packard (HP), accused of leaking information to Israel through a biometric identity system.

Consumers in countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Malaysia, and Pakistan avoid brands alleged to be complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. Social media calls for boycotting various brands like Dominos, Carrefour, McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Pepsi. McDonalds, for example, found itself in the firing line after announcing that its franchise in Israel was distributing free meals to the Israeli army.

The idea of boycotting as an activism action originated during the South African apartheid regime due to the effectiveness of such tactics. Another example was the global boycott of the Danish brand Arla by Muslim countries following the decision of a Danish newspaper to publish controversial cartoons. The newspaper itself was unaffected by the boycotts, but it took years for Arla to rebuild its image in Islamic countries.

A survey by Istanbul University after Israel’s operations in Gaza revealed that only Generation Z embraced the latest boycott call. According to the survey results, more than 65% of the participants stated they did not participate in the boycott and would not support it in the near future.

The Turkish parliament responded to these calls by deciding not to stock products from companies openly supporting Israel under the roof of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, including its cafes, tea houses, restaurants, and social facilities, opting instead for local and national products.

Protests by members of the AKP Youth branches at Starbucks in Turkey made the news. Starbucks is at the top of the boycott list against Israel in Turkey. However, Starbucks does not have branches in Israel. The fact that Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz is Jewish is central to the boycott, but Schultz is not the owner of the brand, which is 98% publicly traded. The largest shareholders are investment funds, with Schultz owning only 1.8%. Starbucks branches in Turkey are owned by the Kuwaiti Alshaya Group. The protests also targeted a presenter at TGRT News, who had a Starbucks cup on her desk during a broadcast. Both the presenter and the director were later fired.

According to Harvard Business Review, effective boycotts require “massive public support,” “understanding of the issue,” and “effective use of mass media.” Even if these are met, expecting boycotts to directly harm the Israeli economy or change Israel’s stance is unrealistic. Israel has repeatedly shown its readiness to withstand such pressures. A primary reason is the Israeli economy’s reliance on technological exports rather than consumer goods. According to the Brookings Institute, the Israeli economy is minimally fragile despite boycotts, indicating that Israeli exports are advanced and not as consumer-focused as believed. In short, finding or creating alternatives to Israeli products is challenging.

Political economists suggest, “Israel is a major exporter of software, spyware, drones, and military munitions. No country that trades with Israel will boycott it; they may vote against it in the UN General Assembly, but they never boycott.”

Money and war move together, and money is made where there is war. The reality of Russia’s ability to withstand sanctions due to Europe’s dependency on its natural gas amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is evident. Money is the most potent ideology. Unfortunately, people often compromise their beliefs when it comes to money.

The Russia-Ukraine war demonstrates that boycotts have an indirect rather than a direct effect. In the early stages of the Russian occupation, companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Apple, BP, and Shell ceased operations in Russia. However, the Russian army continued its invasion of Ukraine without interruption.

Boycotts do not pose a direct threat to a country’s economy or a company’s sales; they only cause discomfort to shareholders, who consider this a threat to the company’s reputation. According to Academic Management Review, a business’s image is a crucial indicator, and if damaged, it can negatively affect investor confidence.

Spanish clothing brand Zara faced backlash after ads featuring amputated mannequins and statues wrapped in white shrouds resembling shrouds, prompting pro-Palestinian activists to call for a boycott of the fashion retailer. However, these ads were shot well before October 7.

Adidas, in 2018, announced it would no longer support the Israel Football Federation following an international boycott and over 16,000 signed petitions. BDS’s protests also forced Puma, still a sponsor of Israel, to make a similar announcement.

Research shows that major boycotts do not impact the targeted country’s economy or cause it to step back from war. By participating in a boycott, you are not affecting the Israeli economy or the course of the war; you are only making yourself feel good.

Boycotts are useful when they are sustained and receive enough media coverage. The reason boycotts are ineffective today is that the ownership structures of companies are complex and hidden from the public. Unless they declare themselves as Israeli companies, it is impossible to identify the real owners of a corporate structure. Anyone can be a shareholder, making the concept of ownership and ultimate responsibility in capital a gray area and difficult to ascertain.

Another argument put forward by boycott supporters is that using local products will help their economies. Multinational companies already purchase local products and feed the local industry. However, these ideas have never benefited the emergence of local ideas that meet the public’s needs.

In Muslim countries like Turkey, boycotts are a double-edged sword. In such countries, investment means employment. It also means options, choices, and alternatives in the market. During periods of economic hardship, Turkey, which has sought aid from Gulf countries, has been unable to challenge not only Israel but even Saudi Arabia.

I do not believe that the boycott has much effect beyond social media. It is not wise to rejoice in products being removed from shelves. Solidarity is certainly very important but ineffective. Israel has mastered the art of overcoming boycotts by the Muslim world. Boycotts should not only aim to hinder economic activities but also create awareness about the growing crisis in the Middle East.”

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YÜKSEL DURGUT is a journalist with a primary focus on global politics and foreign affairs. He serves as the Foreign Relations Director of the International Journalists Association e.V. and holds the position of Editor-in-Chief at Journalist Post.

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