Friday, December 2, 2016

Michael Oren, and a call to label Israeli product

Israeli MK (Member of Knesset) Michael Oren (Kulanu) is no stranger to anti-Israel behavior. He saw plenty of it while serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United States (2009-13). He deals with it now yet again as a special Deputy Minister who works out of the office of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the beginning of this week, Oren got into a twitter spitting match with the French Ambassador to Israel. This short ‘twitter war’ (haaretz, November 28, 2016, below) began on November 24, 2016 when France announced that, “in accordance with the November 2015 European [EU] Commission guidelines, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are occupied territories and not considered part of the State of Israel” (Barak Ravid, “France Issues Regulations Requiring Retailers to Label Goods From Israeli Settlements”, haaretz, November 24, 2016). Therefore, in order not to deceive consumers [emphasis mine], labeling goods simply as "from the West Bank" or "from Golan Heights" without providing more details is "not acceptable". Instead, goods sold in French stores must be clearly marked as coming from an "Israeli settlement” (Charlotte England, “France becomes first European country to label items from Israeli settlements”, independent, November 30, 2016). 
Yes, the French government is careful. It doesn’t want French consumers to be misled into believing that “goods from Palestinian occupied territories were produced in Israel” (ibid). How thoughtful.

This announcement made France the very first EU member-state to implement the 2015 anti-Israel ‘guideline’ to label these products. That 2015 guideline declared that, if Israeli farm goods and other consumer products which come from ‘settlements’ are to be sold in EU countries, Israeli producers must explicitly label these products as coming from “settlements built on land occupied by Israel” [emphasis mine] (Robin Emmott and Luke Baker, “EU moves ahead with labeling goods made in Israeli settlements”, reuters, November 11, 2015). How thoughtful.

In response to the French move, Michael Oren fired off a twitter (on Sunday night, November 27, 2016). In that twitter, he said, “France is labeling Israeli products from Judea, Samaria, and the Golan. Israelis should think twice before buying French products” (Barak Ravid, “Michael Oren, French Ambassador to Israel Engage in Twitter War”, haaretz, November 28, 2016).

What happened next was interesting. First, was the timing: it took only ten hours for Helene LeGal, French Ambassador to Israel, to respond. The Second point of interest was what LeGal said in her response: she accused Oren of calling for a boycott, something he hadn’t done. The third point of interest is how LeGal worded her responding twit. She said, “so you are calling for boycotting French products when in France boycotting Israel is punished by law?” (haaretz, ibid).

Think about that response: Oren, like the French announcement, didn’t use the word, ‘boycott’. Nevertheless, France’s call to label does support the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) Movement, which calls to stop buying Israeli product. The French labels will certainly help French shoppers to ‘think twice about buying Israeli product’. But when Oren suggests that Israelis think twice about buying French products, LeGal tells Oren that boycotts in France are illegal?

That’s absurd. Oren wasn’t calling for a boycott. He was simply suggesting that what’s good for the French is good for Israelis—shop wisely lest you be misled. That’s illegal?

Apparently, for LeGal, that is illegal—but only for Israel. For LeGal, it’s okay for the French to be concerned about Israeli product, but it’s not okay for Israel to be concerned about French product. How hypocritical.  

This ‘twitter-war’ didn’t end there. In response to LeGal’s outrageous rebuke, Oren did something Israeli officials have seldom done: he fought back; and he didn’t fight back in the Israeli press (where few non-Israelis would see it). He published an essay in a large-circulation American outlet, newsweek (“France should be ashamed of labeling products made by Jews”, November 30, 2016). His essay may have appeared elsewhere—hopefully in France.

Here are some excerpts from his response to the French:

To its credit, France is one of the first countries in Europe to ban economic boycotts of Israel. To its shame, France is the first European country to implement a 2015 European Union decision to label Israeli products from Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—and the Golan Heights.

Who, besides France’s Jewish community—already diminished by the sharp rise in anti-Semitism in [France]—will buy products labelled “Made in an Israeli Settlement”? Who is the French government fooling when it says that it is against any boycott of Israel and then acts to facilitate one?...

There are 200 territorial disputes in the world today, [but] France has singled out [only] one of them—Israel’s with the Palestinians—for special treatment. There is no French labeling of Chinese goods from Tibet or Moroccan goods from Western Sahara…France labels products from only one party [to a dispute]—the Jews…

For Israelis, as well as many Jews worldwide, France’s labeling decision cannot be viewed in isolation from French history. From the Dreyfus trial at the end of the 19th century, to Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws 50 years later, France has much to atone for in its relations with Jews. During World War II, French Jews were prohibited from serving in the army or working as doctors, lawyers, journalists, or state officials. Jewish students were expelled from schools and banned from commerce and industry. The French government and police participated in the roundup of 75,000 Jews, almost all of whom were murdered by the Nazis.

Does the France that once extended these racist laws to…Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia…really want to inflict damage on Jews living in areas they consider part of their ancestral homeland? Does the France that once mandated the registration of Jewish businesses and made Jews wear the yellow star now intend to mark Jewish-made goods?...In the end, France will be negatively labelled, not Israel.

Israel [has]…survived many other boycotts, formal and implicit, and thrived. Still, we have the right and the duty to defend ourselves from unjust practices…Israelis should not boycott French products, but we should certainly think twice before buying them. Or perhaps we should just label them with a sticker stating: “Made in a country that singles out Jewish goods”?
My comment: Well said, Michael Oren. Perhaps Israel should apply such stickers.

Mr Oren, you teach pro-Israel advocates a lesson: Never back down. Never retreat. Never let hypocrites claim the moral high ground. Never let a hypocrite go unchallenged.

Thank you.

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