Past shame cannot change the labelling of Israeli settlements products

It devalues the horrors of the Holocaust to liken that suffering to a European judicial order requiring honest labelling of products from Israeli settlements.
Sunday 17/11/2019
An Israeli settler prepares olive oil containers at the Achia Olive press factory in the Jewish settlement of Shilo in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
The right to know. An Israeli settler prepares olive oil containers at the Achia Olive press factory in the Jewish settlement of Shilo in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)

After Israel’s Foreign Ministry hit back at the ruling by the European Union’s top court that EU countries must identify products made in Israeli settlements, I looked at the food-labelling guidance provided by Israel’s Ministry of Health.

It says that “in Israel, as in most Western countries, marking food products is anchored and regulated by legislation” and it asks for “details of the manufacturer, the importer, the marketing company and the packing company.” It explains this is so that “when purchasing food, we can know who is behind the product according to the details listed on the label.”

Quite so.

It’s why the European bloc has product specific origin labelling rules for honey, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, unprocessed beef and beef products, olive oil, wine, eggs, imported poultry and spirit drinks. It’s why the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, states that “food law establishes the rights of consumers to safe food and to accurate and honest information… Labelling helps consumers to make an informed choice while purchasing their foodstuffs.” It’s why egg boxes in European supermarkets have labels that say “from caged hens,” “barn,” “free range” or whatever. The label gives customers the chance to decide based on their view of the world.

So, what’s with the outrage? It’s not about business per se. The European Commission acknowledges that imports from the Palestinian territories to the European Union are very low — about $17.6 million in 2017. Any product-labelling that puts off European consumers will have a barely noticeable effect on Israel’s economy, which seems to be unaffected by the country’s current political paralysis.

After a golden decade of growth that hovered at more than 3%, low unemployment, high incomes, a largely tamed deficit and near-record investment in start-ups, Israel won’t feel the pinch if some European consumers reject products made in Israeli settlements. That’s assuming the new European advisory regulation is enforced.

Rather than money, the angst is about control of the narrative. This is why Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the European Court of Justice ruling was morally bankrupt. That’s why the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the European decision was political in nature and strengthens those who “promote anti-Israel boycotts and deny Israel’s right to exist.”

It’s the reason Ayelet Shaked, a former Israeli Justice minister, said the judicial decision had a “stench of antisemitism.” It’s why Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at Jerusalem think-tank the Kohelet Policy Forum, employed an emotive, exaggerated reference to the Holocaust. The European court in Luxembourg, he said, had approved “putting a new kind of yellow star on Jewish-made products.”

Is a label specifying that food was made in one of Israel’s approximately 130 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones an insidious, 21st-century kind of yellow star?

At the risk of being fatuous, there are at least two opinions on the matter. One is that of Israel, as well as the United States. The other is the Palestinian view, as well as that of some human rights organisations.

The US State Department said the European court ruling was suggestive of an “anti-Israel bias.” That sort of opinion transcends American political divides. Ahead of the ruling, several US politicians, including US Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, wrote to the European court warning against a decision in support of product labelling. It could harm US-EU trade ties, they suggested. Menendez predicted dark times, “serious and far-reaching implications and unintended consequences.”

However, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Maliki and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the ruling. Erekat called on all EU countries to “implement what is a legal and political obligation.”

Human Rights Watch, an international NGO that monitors Israel’s activities in the occupied territories, said the labelling decision was a way for EU members to cease participating “in the fiction that illegal settlements are part of Israel.”

The facts speak for themselves. It’s been 15 years since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concluded that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were “occupied” territories, meaning that the Fourth Geneva Convention for “the protection of civilian persons in time of war” is applicable. That position was overwhelmingly reaffirmed two years ago in a vote by the UN General Assembly.

Israel claims the ICJ is biased against it and now it says the same for the European Court of Justice. The basic argument harks back to a darker time and it’s what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu used in 2015 to attack a resolution by the European Parliament for the labelling of settlements goods. It recalled, he said, the hideous past persecution of Jews, the “historical memory of what happened when Europe labelled Jewish products.”

It devalues the horrors of the Holocaust to liken that suffering to a European judicial order requiring honest labelling of products from Israeli settlements. There is a point beyond which past shame is not an effective tool to shape the present.

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