Supermarket chains fell victim to the vicious backlash against Israel this week, as a Labour MP drew widespread condemnation for publicly promoting direct action against shops selling goods from Israeli settlements.
One Sainsbury’s store in central London briefly withdrew all kosher products from its shelves as a “precautionary measure” amid fears the store could be attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside.
During the same weekend, protesters in Birmingham ransacked a branch of Tesco to urge the chain to stop sourcing items from Israel. These shocking incidents came after Shabana Mahmood (pictured above), the shadow exchequer secretary and MP for Birmingham Ladywood, urged crowds at a rally for Gaza in Hyde Park to “educate yourselves about all the different boycott campaigns and get involved in them”.
To great applause, she reflected on direct action taken against a Sainsbury’s store in Birmingham the previous week: “I was with 200 activists outside Sainsbury’s in the centre of Birmingham,” she said.
“We lay down in the street and we laid down inside Sainsbury’s to say we object to them stocking goods from illegal settlements – and that they must stop. We managed to close down that store at peak time on a Saturday. This is how we can make a difference.”
A Labour Party spokesman told Jewish News: “Ed Miliband has been clear that the Labour Party does not support boycotts of Israel and we resolutely oppose the isolation of Israel.
Having spoken to her, Shabana has made it clear that she does not support calls for a boycott of Israel, but supports the proper labelling of goods from the region as per the DEFRA guidelines.”
However, when pressed by Jewish News on the calls for direct action, a party spokesman declined to comment further. Mahmood also failed to return requests for comment.
Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) director Jennifer Gerber said: “We would urge all MPs to think carefully before aligning themselves to protests that seek to isolate and demonise Israel, and instead urge them to support the progressive voices within Israeli and Palestinian societies calling for a two-state solution, and encourage their ongoing efforts and compromises to secure it.
“LFI has long made clear that calls for boycotts are deeply unhelpful and we do not believe joining protests outside supermarkets is a sensible way of supporting peace.”
Mike Freer, the Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, said: “Miliband’s unwillingness or inability to rein in a front bench spokesman who is encouraging these sort of targeted attacks speaks volumes. For any Parliamentarian to encourage mob rule as a way of protesting is shameful. Will synagogues and kosher shops be next on her list of targets?”
While welcoming the party’s reaffirmation of its opposition to boycotts, Board of Deputies’ President Vivian Wineman said the MP’s “rabble-rousing is extremely irresponsible. We expect political leaders to make considered comments on a deeply complex conflict, and not to stir up tensions within UK communities”.
Protests have taken place outside Tesco stores in Rochdale, Sale, Manchester, Blackburn and Luton, because the retail giant sells fruit, peppers, potatoes and herbs from Israel, along with branded goods. A Manchester store selling Israeli cosmetics has been repeatedly forced to close by regular protests.
Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s apologised after its Holborn branch was roundly condemned for removing kosher products from its shelves. The entire kosher food section was removed “as a precautionary measure” when the manager feared the shop would be attacked by people picketing the store outside.
Images of the bare shelves were posted online, which led to an immediate social media backlash, with some questioning the store’s motives.
Former Tory MP Louise Mensch tweeted: “Dear @Sainsbury’s kosher is JEWISH food. Israel is a COUNTRY. How DARE YOU equate Jews’ food to Israel, how dare you.”
Another message said: “Tell @Sainsbury’s they have no right to remove kosher food from their stores and discriminate against Jews, instead of just calling the police.”
One customer, actor Colin Appleby, said he had been told by staff that they “supported Free Gaza”. But in a statement, Sainsbury’s said: “We would like to apologise for any inconvenience or offence caused. The decision was taken in one store only to move these chilled products to cold storage elsewhere in that store for a short period on Saturday as a precautionary measure during a demonstration close by.”
It added: “As a non-political organisation, Sainsbury’s would never take such a decision on grounds other than ensuring the quality or safety of our products.”
Jo Simmons, a company spokeswoman, confirmed later that although it was an error, the manager had not been removed or reprimanded. She also confirmed that there had been “learning points” arising from the incident but that it would not result in any new guidance or training.
The Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies condemned the incident, store invasions and boycotts. A joint statement read: “We are on record as saying that the protesters behind this campaign have no interest in securing a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians and through such actions, risk importing the Middle East conflict to the UK, dividing communities.
“The community calls on retailers not to discriminate against or boycott any goods, products or suppliers, which would give the message that violence and intimidation work – an especially troubling situation for Jewish people in the UK.”
On Monday, staff from the Board held a ‘buycott’ outside the Holborn store, holding banners including ‘shops are for food not conflict’ and ‘keep it kosher’.
A Tesco spokesman said: “In line with the Government position on trade with Israel, we mark all products clearly with the country of origin, so customers can make informed choices about what to buy.”