Millions of British adults boycott Israeli goods, according to a poll commissioned by Israel lobby group BICOM and carried out by Populus.
The survey suggests that despite efforts by pro-Israel groups and British government ministers to smear, and undermine the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, support for boycott remains largely unchanged.
That conclusion was buried, however, as BICOM sought to spin the survey’s results, the third in what have become annual polls commissioned by the lobby group on ‘British Attitudes Towards Israel’.
Last week, BICOM breathlessly announced that “the number of British people who do not support economic boycotts of Israel has soared over the last year, according to exclusive new polling.”
BICOM head James Sorene claimed that the poll “shows a very significant shift against the idea of boycotting Israel.” He added: “In a year where we have seen several public figures attempt to explain their hatred of Israel as a political position, the judgement of the British people is stark.”
Meanwhile, Simon Johnson, head of the Jewish Leadership Council, claimed that the “findings of this report are positive and encouraging”, and a testimony to “the work of various organisations to better inform the British public about the ongoing situation in the Middle East.”
But is this enthusiasm borne out by the numbers? Let’s take a look.
This year’s poll featured two boycott-specific questions, both of which were also asked in 2014 and 2015, and introduced by the following: “In response to events in Israel and Gaza, some people have been calling for a boycott of goods and produce from Israel.”
Respondents were then asked to express agreement or disagreement with the following statement: “A boycott would hurt both Palestinians and Israelis because a successful Palestinian economy needs a strong Israeli economy alongside it as its largest trading partner.”
Not exactly a neutral set up. Everyone from the World Bank to Palestinian human rights groups are clear that the Israeli occupation is the main obstacle to Palestinian economic growth – and the boycott call is backed by Palestinian trade unions, agricultural workers and others.
Unsurprisingly, only 6 per cent of those polled expressed disagreement with this statement. But this number is also consistent with the previous two years (7 per cent in 2015, and 6 per cent in 2014) – so no change there.
The second statement related to boycott was as follows: “I don’t boycott goods or produce from Israel & find it difficult to understand why others would single out Israel to boycott given everything else that’s going on around the world at the moment.”
This is laughably loaded, yet 12 per cent of those polled still disagreed – the same as last year, and a slight increase from 2014. In other words, despite the biased framing, 12 per cent of British adults –roughly six million people – apparently boycott Israel and/or support those who do.
Now interestingly, BICOM this year dropped two boycott-related questions. Previously, respondents were posed this statement: “An economic boycott of Israel would increase Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians.” In 2015, 23 per cent agreed, and in 2014, 24 per cent agreed.
In addition, respondents had also been posed the following statement: “I would be more likely to boycott goods and produce from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.” In both 2014 and 2015, 25 per cent expressed agreement with this.
BICOM head James Sorene did not respond on Twitter to my question about why these two questions were dropped from this year’s survey.
Aside from the three Populus surveys commissioned by BICOM, there have been a few other polls in recent years that gauged the strength of support for a boycott of Israel.
In 2009, a YouGov poll for The Jewish Chronicle found that 29 per cent of British adults thought boycotting goods from Israel in protest at its policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be a good idea (41 per cent were against, and 30 per cent didn’t know).
Three years later, the paper commissioned a YouGov poll specifically on the issue of cultural boycott, with 27 per cent of respondents agreeing that British entertainers should not perform in Israel (and 17 per cent saying Israeli artists should not be welcome to perform in Britain).
One further interesting poll to note – last year, in an Ipsos MORI poll of British Jews, 24 per cent said ‘yes’ to the following statement: “I would be prepared to support some sanctions against Israel if I thought they would encourage the Israeli government to engage in the peace process.”
Based on the above, along with the BICOM-commissioned annual polls in the last three years, anywhere between 6-30 per cent of British adults either themselves boycott Israel or are supportive of such measures, with the likely figure in the upper end of that range.
Yet even taking the lowest figures – produced by loaded questions from an Israel lobby group – there are still several million British adults backing a boycott of Israeli goods and produce.
That is not, however, the message BICOM wishes to communicate. Indeed, the questions on boycott posed by the organisation suggests that the lobby group is more interested in scoring propaganda points than achieving a realistic assessment of the British public’s views on boycott.
BICOM, and the likes of the JLC, need to prove to their own constituencies (that includes increasingly vocal extremists) that they are doing a good job in combating Palestine solidarity activism, and at the same time, to show that the job’s not done yet (i.e. donor outreach).
Thus, like last year, BICOM’s polling suggests a nervous pro-Israel lobby, and a resilient body of support for BDS amongst the British public – and as BICOM is certainly aware, millions of boycotters is fertile ground for a significant, grassroots campaign.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.