Ahava and the Bay: a BDS Victory

An analysis for rabble.ca by Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) and Faculty 4 Palestine member Mary-Jo Nadeau on the meaning of the recent removal of Ahava products by the Hudson’s Bay Company and whether it should be considered a victory.

The Bay drops Ahava
A victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Canada

This month, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) have discontinued sales of Ahava cosmetic products. Ahava is an Israeli company that has been a target of the Palestinian campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

HBC was the main retailer in Canada that carries Ahava’s line, and has been targeted by a number of Palestine solidarity group over the past 18 months. Many participated in the campaign across the country, including Tadamon in Montreal, the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto, with Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East being the latest group to join in.

HBC’s decision was seen as a major BDS victory, and is being widely celebrated by BDS activists. After receiving a deluge of angry pro-Israeli e-mails and supportive pro-Palestinian e-mails, HBC partnered up with the Canada-Israeli Committee (CIC) to issue a joint statement announcing that the discontinuation of Ahava was a business decision, not a political one.

In addition to revealing that Ahava sales have been declining for some time, and admitting that it was not profitable to carry their products, HBC also affirmed their support for Israel and promised to launch a reformulated Ahava line the spring. Pro-Israel groups quickly declared victory and proclaimed that HBC made a business decision that had nothing to do with BDS.

A debate is now taking place within the BDS movement about whether the HBC decision is a victory. We believe that it is, and here’s why.

Ahava: a major international boycott target

In 2005, over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations endorsed a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law. All Israeli companies profit from and contribute to Israeli apartheid and are therefore targets of the BDS campaign.

Ahava became a focus of BDS activists because of its particularly egregious role in the occupation of the West Bank. The company is majority-owned by two West Bank settlements, has manufacturing facilities in those settlements and its entire product line is manufactured from materials stolen from the Dead Sea, which is located in the occupied West Bank. Building settlements in and extracting resources from occupied territories is illegal under international law. Ahava’s entire operation is therefore in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. Companies that sell Ahava products are also in violation of international law.

HBC decision: Apolitical business decision or BDS victory?

The ultimate goal of the BDS campaign is to put economic and political pressure on Israel, but a key step in achieving this goal is education and raising awareness about Israeli apartheid. Every time a BDS story makes headlines, we achieve a victory because it engages the public in a debate about Israel, Palestine and the BDS campaign. When these debates happen, people around the world increasingly side with Palestinians precisely because the facts emerging from a 60-year history of Palestinian dispossession, displacement and ethnic cleansing by Israel are undeniable.

Moreover, the Ahava debate is taking place as we mark the two-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s massacre in Gaza, which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead, over 5,000 injured and at least 6,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged. After five years of the growing BDS campaign and in the wake of atrocities like Cast Lead, the on-going siege on Gaza, home demolitions and the continued construction of the apartheid wall, the Israeli narrative is rapidly losing ground. The Zionist outcry about HBC’s decision shows their increasing fear of BDS.

Beyond their educational value, the purpose of consumer boycotts is to hit Israeli companies where it hurts — their bottom-line. By HBC’s own admission, Ahava sales have been declining for some time now. Ahava is reformulating and rebranding because their image has been so badly damaged by the BDS campaign. This is all good news — the BDS campaign is affecting this company’s profits.

Significantly, these declining sales have happened despite efforts by the CIC’s Buycott campaign, which has urged supporters to buy Israeli goods, including Ahava products. Their strategy is clearly failing to stop BDS and apparently is not even effective enough to keep Ahava profitable in Canada. This is more good news.

BDS and big business

The BDS campaign is not built on the naive assumption that corporations will drop Israeli products out of some moral imperative. HBC is Canada’s oldest corporation and has been profiting off of colonialism and genocide here in Canada for generations. We do not expect HBC or any other big business to take a courageous stand against Israeli apartheid. Our goal is to apply intense public pressure so that carrying Israeli goods ceases to be profitable. It will take time to build the kind of momentum needed to make that a reality, but we are well on our way. Ahava is no longer profitable to HBC and the BDS movement will continue to educate and agitate until this true of all Israeli goods sold in Canada.

Mary-Jo Nadeau is a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) and Faculty 4 Palestine.

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