The Co-operative Group is the only major British retailer to boycott Israeli goods. It is the fifth-largest retail grocery chain in the UK, with thousands of Co-op minimarkets throughout the United Kingdom. The Co-operative Group (formerly known as the Co-operative Wholesale Society) is closely linked to -- and a major funder of -- the Co-operative Party, which has an electoral pact with the Labour Party, the UK's official opposition. The Co-operative Party has, like the Labour Party itself, been infiltrated by a strong anti-Israel faction.
The Co-operative Group is the fifth-largest retail grocery chain in the UK, with thousands of Co-op minimarkets throughout the United Kingdom. Right: The Co-operative Group head office in Manchester. (Image source: Co-operative Group/Wikimedia commons)
The "co-operative movement" in England began in 1844 when a group of people in Rochdale, Lancashire decided that local stores were charging too much for food, and decided to set up a co-operative retail outlet. From there, the movement mushroomed until, at one time, it even had a flagship department store in London's premier shopping street, Oxford Street, as well as farms, pharmacies and funeral services, to say nothing of the Co-operative Bank, its most lucrative enterprise.
The co-operative movement is also linked to the Co-operative Party, a political party with close links to the British Labour Party, a relationship that dates back to the Co-operative Congress held in 1917, which eventually led to an agreement between the Co-operative Party and the Labour Party to elect joint "Labour Co-operative" candidates. At the last general election in 2015, 21 members of parliament were elected on the Labour and Co-operative ticket.
In 2013, a scandal hit the Co-operative Bank, when it was discovered that there was a massive shortfall in funds due to corruption and mismanagement at the top. The Co-operative Group suffered a terrible financial blow, losing many millions of pounds. This resulted in an entire re-organization of the Co-operative Group, including the sale of the pharmacies and most of the Co-operative Bank (the Co-operative Group still has a 20% share but the bank has demutualized, meaning it is now mainly owned by a hedge fund and is no longer a mutual fund owned by the members).
The Co-operative Group is finally on the road to recovery thanks to new management and the policy of opening minimarkets throughout the United Kingdom, backed up by a massive TV advertising campaign. However, the boycott of Israeli produce remains.
A certain pressure group within the co-operative movement, formed in 2008, caused the Co-operative Group to boycott Israeli agricultural produce exported by the four major Israeli produce exporters. The Co-op Group has refused to stock products from Jewish communities on the West Bank since 2009, but in 2014 its board extended the boycott to the four main exporters of Israeli fresh produce -- Agrexco, Arava Export Growers, Adafresh and Mehadrin -- because they do not distinguish between produce from Israel within the 1949 armistice lines borders and (Arab- and Jewish-grown) produce from beyond it. This assumes that those advocating the boycott know exactly where the new borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state will be, despite that they are yet to be determined through negotiation. Ironically, most of the produce from Jewish settlements currently beyond the Green Line (the 1949 armistice lines between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) is produced by kibbutzim that were there before 1948, when the West Bank was lost in Israel's War of Independence.
One such area is the Etzion Bloc of four kibbutzim, for which the land was purchased from its previous owners long before the British withdrew from Palestine. The Etzion Bloc will, in fact, almost certainly become part of Israel after a final settlement.
A substantial proportion of the produce marketed by Israel's four agricultural exporters is produced by Arab farmers, operating both inside and outside the pre-1967 borders, as Israel does not discriminate between them. According to The Guardian, in April 2012, the Co-Operative Group said in a statement that it had decided to stop buying products from companies known to source from Jewish "settlements." The decision affects contracts valued at £350,000 (about $500,000) -- a practice apparently begun in 2009. Presumably it had still been doing business with Israeli pharmaceutical products; if not, according to one Co-operative Group board member, "the shelves of the pharmacy would have been bare." Unfortunately, the Co-operative pharmacies had to be sold when the Co-op Group faced virtual ruin due to the mismanagement of the Co-op Bank's directors.
There is, of course, no proof that the Israeli companies with which the Co-op continues to do business do not source any products from Jewish "settlements" because many Israeli businesses in the West Bank are mainly involved in manufacturing. These enterprises employ many local Arab workers, whose livelihoods are endangered by the boycott.
Although the Co-operative Group also claims to reject exports from the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, also alleged to be an illegal occupation, in practice the boycott only affects Israel, because the Western Sahara boycott is applicable only to a few tins of sardines. The Co-op Group continues to refer to Israel's "illegal settlements" as if these and those in the Western Sahara (included "for balance" no doubt) were the only disputed territories in the world. There is no boycott, of course, of major exporting countries with appalling human rights records, such as China (invasion of Tibet), Russia (invasion of the Ukraine) and other countries whose occupation of other areas is not recognized internationally, such as Nagorno-Karabakh or Northern Cyprus. It should be remembered that in none of the above cases were the occupying countries threatened; the aggression came purely from one side, the side that was victorious This is the exact opposite of what happened in the case of Israel, but with a bloc of 58 Muslim countries in the United Nations, supported by most of the members of the European Union, might proves to be right in this case.
To set the record straight, the so-called "occupation" of the West Bank by Israel is not an occupation at all, since the territory was taken from Mandate Palestine, after it had been abandoned by the British and was occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan (then known as Transjordan), in its attempt to destroy the new State of Israel in 1948-49. Between 1948 and 1967, the West Bank was occupied by Jordan, an occupation that could indeed be said to be illegal, being recognized only by the United Kingdom (which had colluded therein) and Pakistan. This former "no man's land" was taken by Israel during the Six-Day War against it in 1967. The massive Muslim bloc in the United Nations has ruthlessly pursued the concept of an "occupation" to divert attention from the appalling human rights abuses that their dictatorships continue to maintain in their own countries.
By no means everyone running the Co-operative Group is in favour of the boycott in fact; ironically, some of the newer members of the Group's management even seem to be unaware of it. A recent statement made by a new member of the Members' Board at a members' meeting in London implied that whether or not one bought Israeli goods (presumably from the Co-op) was a mere matter of preference. As usual, of all the countries in the world, Israel is being singled out. For the boycotters of the Co-op Group, Israel is the usual soft target.
Myra Carr is based in the United Kingdom.