The Co-op has been banned from four American states including New York and Florida because it boycotts goods from West Bank settlements.
Manchester-based Co-operative Group, founded in 1844, has businesses in food, banking, insurance, funerals and legal services, and operates ethical policies, meaning its stores have not stocked settlement products since 2009. Five years ago, members expanded the ban to include Israeli companies trading in the settlements.
The Co-op, which last year reported £9.5 billion revenue, also bans produce from Moroccan settlements in Western Sahara, saying that in both instances “there is a broad international consensus that the status of the region or state is illegal”.
This week Arizona, New York, Florida and Illinois took action, after the states’ legislatures barred companies from investing in it, but the UK-based group denies that its ban on settlement products constitutes a boycott of Israel.
“We do not source any produce or own-brand products from the Israeli settlements,” it says on its website. “We can categorically state that this position does not constitute a boycott of Israeli businesses. We remain committed to sourcing produce from and trading with Israeli suppliers that do not source from the settlements.”
While dozens of U.S. states have been passing their own laws relating to Israel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Senators and U.S. House representatives appear set to pass a federal law that would ban boycotts of Israel and/or of West Bank settlements later this year.
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA) is far-reaching, prohibiting individuals from even seeking information about such boycotts, with violations subject to a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.
Activists have said this kind of legislation is an attack on free speech, and the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the IABA as unconstitutional, saying: “The impacts of the legislation would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment… It would punish individuals for no other reason than their political beliefs.”