The EU’s announcement of new guidelines regarding the labelling of settlement products, has been greeted by Israeli officials as well as members of the opposition with a campaign which presents a uniform position against the document that takes the line: it is a boycott, and it is anti-semitic.
The new EU guidelines require that goods from, say, the Golan Heights should be labelled: “product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)”. For products from Palestine territories that are not from settlements, an indication of origin could be “product from Palestine” or “product from West Bank (Palestinian product)”.
The decision to label settlement products is in line with existing EU law since 2004 which requires the places of origin of fruits, vegetables and honey to be labelled, but the document has a strong symbolic meaning: it singles out products from settlements. It is this symbolic gesture that has caused alarm in Israel.
The mechanism of alarm is unique in that the panic it causes in Israel is the same panic that is projected internationally. The fear of “boycott” and the fear of anti-semitism are promoted in Israel and levelled at the Europeans.
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, on a visit to Israel, has labelled the boycott movement as a “few lefty academics” in corduroy jackets pursuing a “completely crazy” campaign, but the Israeli establishment doesn’t share his levity.
The boycott movement has been the subject of a prolonged campaign of moral panic in the Israeli media which frames it as an existential threat: “a campaign against the very existence of Israel” as opposition Knesset member Yair Lapid described it.
This panic has had real policy implications and it culminated in the 2011 anti-boycott law which stipulates that calling for the boycott of the settlements is illegal. A new bill being debated in the Knessett would forbid entry into Israel of anyone who calls for a boycott against Israel.
The anti-boycott legislation effectively stifles debate in Israeli society about the issue of labelling when supporting labelling may be against the law. So there are very few voices in Israel in support of the EU decision that is arguably in line with treaties to which Israel has been a signatory for more than ten years. One small exception is an online petition.
The fear of European anti-semitism has real and clear historical roots, as well as contemporary causes for alarm. But the link between the labelling guidelines and Judeophobia is tactical and confected. Back in September, deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, who leads the anti-labelling campaign explained its use as political leverage in the upcoming campaign against labelling:
It is of especially bad taste that Europe is doing labelling, this marking that reminds us of dark days. They don’t like to be reminded of that, it plays on the European conscience and we are doing it without shame and without stutter.
Hotovely is saying that in Europe the tactic of hinting at historical links between current policy and a history marked by perpetration of anti-semitic atrocities and/or collaboration in these atrocities and wider discrimination creates an unease that translates into diplomatic results.
In the context of labelling, this strategy has a history. In 2013 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to stickers placed on settlement products by Irish BDS activists:
It is not by chance that the BDS organisation chose to express its protest with a yellow sticker – which is reminiscent of dark days of racism and incitement.
Similarly, after his meeting with the EU high representative, Federica Mogherini, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, remarked on the plan to label products that “for many Israelis this recalls dark days in Europe” and later that: “We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labelled Jewish products”.
In the current campaign, this trope has repeatedly appeared. Israel’s national infrastructure minister, Yuval Steinitz of the Likud called the decision “disguised” anti-semitism”, while the science minister Ofir Akunis supplied a history lesson:
What began with calls to boycott Jewish businesses – continued with the marking of human beings, and afterwards with their systematic destruction. If the countries of the union indeed begin to enforce this policy, Europe will be sinning first and foremost against itself!
There appears to be a united Israeli front against the practice of labelling settlement products. There can really be no serious discussion over labelling once the alarms of “boycott” and “anti-semitism” have been sounded – and even though the EU is not promoting the isolation of Israel, it appears that the government has decided to treat the decision as a general drill for such a possibility.