BDS vs Woolworths: Just stop it

There are certain issues which, as a journalist, you should rather not touch if you want to come out intact. But sometimes you just can't help yourself - you have to do your job.

As a journalist and lowly paid member of the commentariat, I am aware of certain 'third rail' issues that are usually not worth touching. That's why they are called 'third rail', as in the New York Subway: You touch, you die. The response will be personal, hateful, and usually completely irrational, augmented by the echo chamber that is today's social media. It will be directed at me personally, and not what I say. And at the end, no minds will be changed, and nothing productive will result.

Yet my job entails telling it the way I see it and not necessarily the way it would work best for me personally. So, here we go: the BDS campaign against Woolworths is at best misguided, wasteful and clouding the real issues. At worst, it is malicious, anti-Semitic and hurts the cause it purports to support. In any way, it is just plain wrong.

It is always easiest to navigate to the increasingly ugly mess that is the anti-Woolworths campaign by refusing to be drawn into it at all. From the news media side it works like this: reporters report, then we source comments from both sides and by the time the segment/article/report is over, we can continue happily to other issues, where we don't run a daily risk of losing our best friends.

But the refusal to engage with this argument can sometimes mean that actors in a part of our national debate are then not properly interrogated. And that also means that we, the media, are simply not doing our job.

And that is why I feel the need to write this column.

Let me state my belief upfront:

Israel's actions during its campaigns against the Palestinians, and its policies, do need to be condemned. The way Israel behaves with its airstrikes is morally wrong. While it may believe the threat posed by Hamas and other groups operating from Palestinian territory justifies its response, the thousands of lives lost on both sides don't justify its argument.

It is perfectly within Palestinian rights to try to change Israel's behaviour through a worldwide campaign.

But I also believe the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions Campaign (against Israel) to boycott Woolworths is misguided, and possibly motivated by another agenda. There are much better ways to get Israel to change its policies.

The stated aim of the BDS movement with this campaign is to force Woolworths to stop its trade with Israel. In other words, they want to hurt Israel through Woolworths. Woolworths responds by saying that a fraction of one percent of its products come from Israel. What BDS really wants to do, presumably, is to get Israel to change its behaviour and its policies, with the net result being that the position of the Palestinian people is improved.

Why, then, is BDS trying to get people to stop shopping at an entire chain of stores, rather than just targeting the products made in Israel? During the anti-Apartheid campaign in the UK and other countries, the aim was exactly the same as the aim of BDS here. They wanted the government of Apartheid South Africa to change its behaviour and its policies. They targeted South African oranges and grapefruit and wine. The product itself was targeted, not the store selling them. This resulted in labelling laws that made it compulsory to indicate where products were from.

As a result, people could decide for themselves on a product-by-product basis whether to buy those products or not at the entire, rather arbitrarily chosen chain.

Why does BDS believe we should be denied that choice here? The last time I heard, the South African Constitution guarantees us the very fundamental right of making up our own minds. And the last time I heard, South African government, while using tough top language, is still happily doing day-to-day business with Israel. Why, then, would BDS assume the right to isolate, inconvenience and shame Woolworths customers over, say, Pick 'n Pay, Checkers, Dis-Chem and others, all of which actually have their own collaborations with Israel? Who gives them that deeply unconstitutional right?

Could it be that the social fabric of our society has become intertwined with this? Is it because Woolworths is where the assumption is that the rich white people shop, and that is motivating part of this campaign? What emerged out of the anti-Woolworths campaign is a combo of anti-Israel, anti-semitic, anti-rich, anti-white moves.

Is it because of that that is much easier to get the Congress of South African Students and the ANC Youth League involved if this is actually a campaign against rich white people?

As an aside, conducting a campaign against rich white people is fine - I have no problem with that - but then at least be honest about your intentions. And, needless to say, if I'm white and shopping in Woolworths, does it really mean that I'm racist and anti-Palestinian? I beg to differ. (Refer to my previous condemnation of Israeli heavy-handed tactics.)

But let's go back to product - rather than shop-boycotting: surely the symbolic power of a shelf still full of Israeli pretzels right next to an empty one bearing the tag "Italian Pretzels" is much stronger than attempting to boycott the entire store? You are unlikely to ever get a picture of a completely empty Woolworths, when it would be pretty easy to get the picture of that shelf full of Israeli pretzels.

And if your aim is to stop Woolworths from doing business with Israel, then they would look at the two shelves, and, for purely business reasons, stop stocking products that don't sell. Surely it should be up to them to make that decision.

Instead, BDS appears to want confrontation for reasons that are not properly clear from outside and far from clearly understood.

Woolworths buys so little produce from Israel that if indeed the aim is to get them to stop trading with the state entirely, and the campaign succeeds, would Israel, or Woolworths itself for that matter, really suffer that much? Surely not. It would seem this is a terribly resource-hungry way to go about gaining very little in the end. There are surely better ways for people based in South Africa to hurt Israel, to make it change its behaviour towards Palestinians.

Another, bigger question has to be asked about the stated agenda here. BDS says it wants Israel to change its behaviour because it is behaving in an unjust manner. Sure, I agree with them. But why only Israel? Is the scale of injustice, the suffering it inflicts really any smaller than that one inflicted upon the Muslims in Myanmar? Or by the government of North Korea? Surely not. So why, then, is there no campaign to expel Burmese or the North Korean ambassador to South Africa?

To take this argument further, surely it cannot be claimed that the government of China protects human rights in the way that we as South Africans understand that concept. Surely, surely, if we are to boycott Israeli figs, we must boycott just about every product that Game, Dion, Makro and every other retail shop sells? Aren't iPhones, iPads, Samsung Galaxies all assembled in China? And aren't Apple products designed in the US, which is a country that does not convict people who shoot dead unarmed young black men?

So why not China, Myanmar, North Korea, whose condemnation our own country failed to vote for two weeks ago? Or Saudi Arabia, a country with no human rights to talk of? What about Bahrain, where the democratic opposition is being harassed daily? Or Iran, Brunei (a country with Sharia law), or Russia, which turned into a mafia-dominated country once more, the one that is a serious threat to international peace? And shall we talk about Syria/Iraq/Isis?

Why should not we boycott goods made in the Republic of South Africa, because our police kill black people too, and get away with it?

I know that to dare to question the BDS movement in this way is going to see me labelled as some sort of Nazi. The criticism will be personal. I have to ask, though, why Israel has been chosen in the first place. Is it because the people who lead BDS look like, speak like, and worship like the Palestinians do? I have no problem in people standing in solidarity with other people; it is what people do, all of us. But I do have a problem when the undeniable abuses of human rights atrocities committed by Israel are placed above those of North Korea, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many, many others. And then I must ask why this is happening. If I am a Nazi for questioning this campaign, may I then suggest that this campaign is inherently racist because the suffering of Chinese and North Korean (and Tibetan) people is placed below that of the Palestinian people?

The BDS movement has claimed that once it succeeds with Woolworths, it will move on to other retailers that also sell Israeli goods. Why, then, was Woolworths picked in the first place? Dis-Chem is often mentioned. Surely it has a higher percentage of Israeli goods sold through its outlets than Woolworths does. Israeli prides itself on its pharmaceuticals. They would make a better target, if the aim is to hurt Israel. Or is it just because Woolworths is an easy target?

Israel also makes the claim that it has some of the best software designers in the world. Certainly, it seems that their products may play more of a role in products used here than Israeli figs. Why have they not been targeted?

As already stated, the loss of Woolworths as a market for Israeli figs will have very little impact on Israel. We all know that the major factor in keeping Israel strong is the undying support it receives from the US. Why is their embassy not the target of this attention? Surely if you really want to make Israel change, or to weaken it (if that is your real intention) then that is the change you need to make, you need to ensure that the US withdraws its support from Israel.

The fact that just one retailer has been targeted in this way by the BDS campaign has to lead to questions about their ultimate agenda. Is it to simply get media attention? Or to actually make a difference in the way that Israel behaves? Because if the real aim is in fact to make Israel behave better, they are failing miserably.

If you want to help the undeniable plight of terribly abused Palestinian people, surely there must be much better way of doing it than arbitrarily choosing one target, and then being mean to it.

Now, if you don't mind, I may just not check my Twitter account for the next few days.

_Stephen Grootes is host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on _ Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.