Boycott ISIS? Boycott what?

Picture of a Palestinian woman wearing a white scarf and pink jacket clinging to an olive tree, with an Israeli military vehicle behind itThere is a story going around that the NUS recently passed a motion to align itself with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, while a year ago having rejected a motion to boycott ISIS. The Jerusalem Post reported the Israeli PM’s reaction to the vote, which in another story it claimed was passed 19-14. JPost put it in the context of all the forces ranged against Israel worldwide, such as how “in the UN, Turkey and Iran voted in favor of recognizing as an NGO a group linked to Hamas which fires missiles on Israeli cities, while hiding behind civilians”, also quoting a dissenting NEC member, Joe Vinson, who “tweeted later that anti-Semitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches, it has mutated into BDS and the NUS is infected”. (There is a response from Electronic Intifada here.) Nobody passing the story around seems to have considered why one vote passed and the other didn’t: what on earth is there to boycott about ISIS?

The motion was not passed by the union’s conference but by the executive council, hence the small number of people voting (there are hundreds at conference), which means it can be overturned at the next conference. JPost claimed that the vote was “aligning all British students with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel”, which in fact it does not; it aligns the NUS itself, and is not binding on individual members or even on affiliated local student unions (although some of them have passed pro-BDS motions). What it means is presumably that the NUS won’t be serving up dates, humous or other Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food sourced from Israel at any of its events. How much they already buy, the story does not say.

I looked over the earlier motion and one of its clauses is to “encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers”. Boycott them how? There is Israeli produce (some of it grown in illegal settlements) in every British supermarket — citrus, dates, humous, avocadoes among other things. What do we buy from anyone who might be supplying ISIS? I can’t remember ever having seen Iraqi produce in British shops and Syrian only in a few specialist Arab food shops, and I wouldn’t have thought ISIS would be exporting food when they need it for themselves. Perhaps some arms manufacturer is doing so, indirectly, but most students in the UK don’t own or carry weapons and those that do would not admit it. Would the NUS have to choose where to get its Middle Eastern antiquities from? Perhaps they put ‘boycott’ so as not to put ‘turn in’ or something similar, which would have (rightly) invited the criticism that it encourages students to snoop and inform on each other, but boycotting only has any point to it if it involves changing one’s behaviour and making a sacrifice.

Student Union boycotts are very largely symbolic, in any case. They can stop stocking certain companies’ goods (unions did not sell Nestlé products for many years, and possibly still do not), but as all their funding comes from the colleges (nobody pays a fee to join), they receive public money and are restricted in being able to make decisions that involve money on other than quality or value-for-money grounds, and as the NUS receives most of its money from union affiliation fees, it is subject to the same restrictions. At my university (Aberystwyth), a motion was once proposed that the Guild join the Lloyds and Midland Boycott on the grounds that those banks (Midland is now part of HSBC) were involved in arms deals, but it was pointed out that the union would have to take the best deal, whether it came from the Co-Operative Bank or the Midland.

When I first heard of this, I thought the proposer must have been an Israeli sympathiser looking to accuse the NUS of anti-Semitism or hypocrisy after it (inevitably) rejected it. In fact, the proposer was Kurdish and the main argument against was from the NUS Black Students’ officer, Malia Bouattia, on the grounds that “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamaphobia”, which the authors of the motion claim they could find no trace of in the wording, but perhaps Ms Bouattia thought there was enough noise about ISIS in the media, coupled with a lot of obvious Islamophobia, for the NUS to need to add to it. The NUS seems to do an awful lot of motion-passing, condemning or ‘supporting’ a lot of causes that have nothing to do with students in the UK or anywhere else, but a boycott only makes sense if there is something to boycott, which in the case of ISIS, there isn’t.

Image source: The Ecologist.

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