3 February 2016

US picks sides in EU anti-Israel trade war

By Benjamin Weinthal

When a European Union policy decision can bring together two senators as ideologically diverse as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the issue must be egregious. And the EU initiative targeting Israeli exports fits the bill. Gillibrand and Cruz took the lead along with a bipartisan group of 34 additional senators to protest the EU’s discriminatory policy singling out the Jewish state for a “de facto boycott” of its products.

The senators were responding to the EU move, last November, to label products from the disputed territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights. A similar policy change by the Obama administration followed last month.

In sharp contrast to Europe, however, there are countervailing forces in the US Congress that can blunt the EU’s economic warfare on Israel. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced legislation to reverse the Obama administration directive on the “special labeling” of Israeli goods.

The EU’s punitive labeling measure is the most high-profile quiver in the larger anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) described BDS “as a modern form of what we call anti-Semitism” because its activists employ a double standard for the Jewish state.

The US State Department’s advocacy of the BDS penalty is riddled with contradictions. When asked in November whether the EU labeling system could be a slippery slope to a full economic boycott of Israeli products, Mark Toner, the State Department deputy spokesman, said, “It’s a … it could be … it could be perceived as a stop on the way.”

Two months later, the State Department’s top spokesman, John Kirby, took an about-face from Toner’s assessment and said: “We do not view labeling the origin of products as being from the settlements a boycott of Israel. We also do not believe that labeling the origin of products is equivalent to a boycott.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the mainstreaming of BDS in European politics is proceeding astonishingly quickly. The mayor of Munich permitted a BDS event to take place in the city’s Gasteig cultural center during the November remembrance period for the Kristallnacht pogroms that targeted Jewish businesses and synagogues for destruction in 1938.

“The BDS campaign disguises the socially unacceptable,” Charlotte Knobloch, the head of Munich’s small Jewish community and a Holocaust survivor, said at the time. It has modernized the Nazi slogan “Don’t buy from Jews!” by demanding, “Don’t buy from the Jewish State,” she said.

The EU labeling measure has provided European BDS activists with momentum. Just days ago, Italian academics launched a campaign to boycott the Haifa-based Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. In November, the editors at Der Spiegel, who favor the EU’s labeling of Jewish products, convinced the high-end department store KaDeWe in Berlin to remove Israeli wines from the shelves. After KaDeWe was publically humiliated in the international media about its unsavory history—the Nazis seized the building from its Jewish owners in the 1930s—the store’s managers returned the wines to its stock and apologized.

In the northern German city of Bremen—a hub of the BDS campaign—activists marched into businesses to check if the stores were selling Israeli products. While wearing white laboratory coats—suggesting that the Israeli good were contaminated—the BDS supporters sought to force the stores to label the products.

The EU labeling system spells a sweeping assault on all Israeli products and institutions. It is noteworthy that the UK has seen several anti-BDS policy proposals. And the Conservative government seeks legislation to bar city councils from “politically motivated” boycotts of Israel.

The next US administration will have tools at its disposal to stop the growing European BDS movement. And given her claim to be the inheritor of Obama’s presidency, it will be interesting to see if she gets elected, whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would reverse the Obama administration’s policies in regards products from Israel. Meantime, the current Congress can act now. The EU-US free trade agreement—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—can be strengthened by incorporating a provision banning European companies and countries from waging BDS economic warfare.

Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal