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Which boycotts for Palestine are legitimate?

Many people want to boycott brands complicit with abuses of Palestinian human rights. Here we explore ways to distinguish between impactful campaigns against Israeli apartheid, and social media crazes.

We discuss three types of boycotts related to Palestine and Israel: boycotts led by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigners in Palestine, boycotts that follow the BDS principles, and boycotts that go wildly viral without much organisation involved. 

1. The most legitimate boycotts are called by the BDS National Committee

The leading authority on which brands to boycott in support of Palestinian rights is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee, also known as the BNC. The BNC is a coalition of Palestinian organisations which has since 2005 led impactful boycott campaigns against complicit brands, and it sits at the centre of the global BDS movement.

It’s very easy to find out which brands the BNC is calling for people internationally to boycott: there’s a list on its website. If you want to get involved in supporting boycotts for Palestinian human rights, these are the most important brands to campaign against.

The BNC strategically chooses a small number of brands to target with campaigns they think have a real chance of winning. That way, the collective effort of people worldwide could result in meaningful change, for example a company cutting ties with the Israeli government or apartheid apparatus.

Example: Hewlett-Packard (HP)

The BNC is calling for a boycott of HP-branded corporations. These provide services to the Israeli police and prisons. As part of this campaign a range of churches, trade unions, city councils and student unions have declared themselves HP-free. The BNC claims HP has phased out certain elements of work with for example illegal Israeli settlements because of the boycott call, but there’s still a long way to go. You can get involved in the HP boycott campaign on the BNC website.

Find more ethical alternatives brands to HP in our laptop guide.

2. Other boycotts that follow BDS principles are also valuable

The BNC tends to choose brands that operate globally so that people worldwide can get involved in the boycott, but it encourages boycotts of “all Israeli and international companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights”. As such it invites campaigners around the world to choose local targets if they align with the BDS principles.

Example: Israeli dates

The campaign group American Muslims for Palestine has a long-running boycott call against Israeli date exporters. 

The campaign group claims that dates are regularly grown in illegal Israeli settlements and as such should be avoided. It says “Israeli date farms profit off of theft and abuse. They are predominantly grown in illegal Israeli settlements and are grown using stolen natural resources like water… Israel continues to be one of the top exporters of dates to the United States. In the 2022/23 market year, Israel exported at least 12 million dollars worth of dates to the U.S. Your boycott of Israeli dates is critical to pushing back on this exploitative industry.”

This is a key example of a local BDS boycott. It’s run by and aims to speak specifically to Muslims living in the United States who are likely to buy dates during Ramadan, which is the community that would likely have the greatest impact on Israeli dates sales if people in it decided to start boycotting.

3. Viral boycotts

Nearly all the Palestine-related boycott calls stem from people’s desire to take action against Israel’s ongoing oppression across Palestine and the unfolding genocide in Gaza. But sometimes a brand that wasn’t ever the target of a BDS boycott or considered closely linked to Israeli apartheid gains sudden viral attention. These can sometimes emerge for legitimate reasons and be hugely impactful, gaining lots of attention. Sometimes they can however lack substance and efforts could be more impactfully focused elsewhere.

Example: Starbucks

Starbucks has been targeted by a huge boycott campaign in recent months.

This began with a Starbucks worker in a union tweeting “Free Palestine” from the union account near the beginning of the bombardment on Gaza in October. Starbucks management demanded they take it down, and now lawsuits, boycotts and vast amounts of press attention later it’s clear Starbucks is still feeling the pressure.

Yet, Starbucks is far less complicit in abuse of Palestinian rights than many companies, such as those which actually operate on illegal settlements in stolen Palestinian land, or play an active role in supporting apartheid by for example providing technology to the Israeli government and military. In comparison with this, one Starbucks employee removing one union member’s tweet is by most standards less complicit in Palestinian human rights violations.

Even if links to apartheid Israel aren’t especially strong, viral boycotts can have an impact. They can create publicity and keep the situation in the media, as this Starbucks boycott has shown, so some people might want to support boycotts for that reason.

Read more about Starbucks in our guide to coffee shops.

The BNC may end up endorsing viral boycotts even if it didn’t initially choose them as a strategic target.

While it hasn’t publicly endorsed the Starbucks boycott, it has decided to endorse the McDonald’s boycott which came to prominence in a similar organic and viral way (but has more concrete links to oppression through for example providing free meals to Israeli soldiers and its McDonald’s in Malaysia “bullying” BDS activists). The McDonald’s boycott has even caused a noticeable dent in the company’s sales.

4. Boycotts to avoid

We’ve snuck in a fourth type of boycott call – the kind you should avoid! As with every large scale movement, like the BDS movement is, sometimes individuals claim to be a part of it when they are actually violating its principles. If you suspect a boycott call is rooted in prejudice or false information, it’s obviously not worth supporting and you won’t find it on our list of active boycotts

Questions to consider when deciding whether or not to boycott

  • Is the brand clearly complicit with abuses of Palestinian human rights? 
    The more complicit the brand is, the more important it is to target it and the higher chance lots of people will support the campaign. 
  • Can you explain the reasons for the boycott call in one or two sentences? 
    It could make sense to be wary of endorsing a boycott if you’re not certain why they’re being targeted or the reasons seem vague.
  • Is there a named organisation calling for the boycott? 
    Viral social media posts often fizzle out, but if an organisation is involved then the campaign is more likely to be long-term and have a greater chance of achieving its goals. People might also be more likely to trust boycott calls if they're run or endorsed by reputable organisations.
  • Is it a well-known brand? 
    Part of the success of boycotts is that they generate media attention and lots of people can get involved, so if it’s a company no one’s heard of it probably won’t be very effective.

Read more in the BDS movement’s guide to strategic boycott campaigns

10 Companies to boycott over their links to Israeli Apartheid

Watch our video to find out more about some of the companies to boycott