Boycotts against Israel: Can they really lead to change? - M5 Dergi
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Boycotts against Israel: Can they really lead to change?

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As compelling research by Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth suggests, only around 3.5% of population is needed to drive political change

While boycotts are often seen as direct attempts to exert economic pressure, their real influence may lie in their ability to raise political awareness and trigger collective action.

Recently, the Middle East franchisee of Starbucks, Alshaya Group, announced around 2,000 job cuts, approximately 4% of its workforce. That decision, which came due to “tougher trading conditions,” follows regional and international boycotts of major companies like Mcdonald’s, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Disney and others perceived as supportive of Israel or its army.

With Israel’s assault on Gaza now in its sixth month, boycott calls have also grown louder in the West. Technology has played a key role, with hashtags on social media platforms like X and TikTok calling to boycott companies linked to Israel. Mobile apps such as NoThanks and Buycott have also helped people identify relevant brands to target.

Are boycotts enough?

Many will be wondering: Are boycotts alone enough to dent companies and effectuate change?

For those hoping boycotts can make a difference, there is some good news. As compelling research by Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth suggests, only around 3.5% of the population is needed to drive political change. [1] That indicates that even when proactive voices are in the minority, these voices can still make a difference.

History is full of examples of successful boycotts. Take the calls in England in 1791 to boycott sugar produced by slave traders, causing a decline in profits and shifting public opinion against the transatlantic slave trade, which ended just decades later.

Notably, the anti-South Africa apartheid boycotts encouraged international shoppers to “Look at the Label.” Combined with wider international and domestic activism, and pressure against Western governments, those boycotts helped officially end the apartheid regime in 1994.

Boycotts can raise political awareness

Yet there is a catch. Boycotts alone, though they may partly dent companies’ profits and Israel’s economy, can also raise political awareness. And to make a solid impact, it should be combined with parallel government changes.

Today, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which since 2005 has described itself as “a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality,” and others like Jewish Voice for Peace, are at the forefront. Beyond targeting specific brands, such movements also aim to push companies [2] into divesting from Israel, and ultimately pressure Israel into ending its decades-long occupation in the Palestinian territories.

Other changes are also taking place. While Starbucks and Mcdonald’s recently cited decreased growth in their international activities, pension funds across Europe have also started altering their investment strategies. That includes Veilev, one of Denmark’s largest funds, while the Norwegian Pension Fund recently divested [3] its entire bond holdings from Israel, worth $500 million.

Pressure within education sector

Pressure within the education sector is playing a bigger role too. Several universities in the US and Europe have voted to divest from Israel or Israel-linked companies since last October, and those efforts are likely to continue.

There appears to be a shift among many academics. In December, an Israeli study sent to Israel’s parliament, or the Knesset, warned [4] that an “unofficial boycott” of Israeli academics has occurred in the West. That study also cited dangers to Israel’s scientific standing and economy as a result.

Even before the current war, many singers from Taylor Swift to Beyonce previously refused to play in Israel, partly owing to political pressure. Members of bands like Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and System of a Down, have been more outspoken, joining hundreds of other artists pledging not to perform in Israel. [5]

In recent years though, there’s been a clash between grassroots activism and governments in the West. Not only have several Western leaders explicitly condemned BDS, but some of Israel’s key allies, including the UK [6] and US, [7] have pursued legislation to stifle domestic boycott activities against “friendly countries,” evidently curtailing efforts to boycott Israel.

While that may pose a hurdle for boycott movements, wider cracks over Western support are starting to emerge.

There’s been an increase in legal and activistic pressure over arms sales, a key pillar of Western support for Israel. Domestic legal challenges have occurred across Europe, including recently in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Spain and even the UK.

And as Gaza’s plight worsens, wider pressure from rights and humanitarian groups has prompted leaders to express concern over Israel’s actions, although that’s yet to manifest in notable policy shifts.

Clearly, collective pressure is necessary to drive political change, and history has shown that governmental responses would be necessary to create those changes. Boycotts may play a part in that.​​​​​​​

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