Coca Cola: Profiting from Israeli Apartheid since 1968

Speech given by Sophia Hansen-Day, BDS Forum at 4200 Cedar, April 19th, 2015.


Hello everyone, thanks for being here today as we build our Minnesota Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) work in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

As has already been mentioned, the global movement for BDS was initiated in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations. The 2005 call was launched on July 9th, one year to the day after the International Court of Justice declared Israel’s apartheid wall illegal under international law. Recognizing the utter failure of international bodies such as the UN to make Israel comply with international law or respect Palestinian rights, Palestinian organizations called for grassroots activism to place pressure on the apartheid state of Israel.

The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by: Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the apartheid Wall; Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Initiators were encouraged by the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance organized by UNESCO in Durban, South Africa. Out of this conference, Palestinian intellectuals called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in 2003 and formed the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel in 2004. A national committee was then established that brought together Palestinian civil society groups who agreed to the above three demands, and they launched the BDS movement.

The successful South African anti-apartheid movement informs the strategy behind BDS. While it took several decades of organizing both internal resistance and international pressure, the apartheid regime finally fell in 1994. Anti-apartheid campaigners began by demanding UN sanctions against the South African regime after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. At Sharpeville, 69 Black South Africans were shot dead by white police officers as they demonstrated against pass laws, an internal passport system that severely limited Black South Africans’ movement and was a primary means of enforcing apartheid. In 1976 state-sponsored killings during the uprising in Soweto stimulated further international condemnation of apartheid, intensifying the boycott campaign.

Sanctions against the regime and consumer boycotts did a number of things. They: increased public awareness, particularly in Europe and the US, of the realities of the racist regime; demonstrated symbolic and concrete solidarity with South Africans engaged in struggle; forced capitalists to shift their investment strategies because the long-term risks of association with the apartheid state outweighed short-term financial advantages; and increased anxiety among the apartheid state’s leaders that a crisis would intensify as long as the structures of their system remained in place.

The history of the South African struggle is more than an inspiring example of international solidarity. It also contains important lessons about strategy and the relationships between internal resistance and international solidarity.

With this framing in mind, I’m going to talk some specifically about the B in BDS, and the call for a Coca Cola boycott put out by the US Palestinian Communities Network (USPCN). A boycott is an act of voluntarily abstaining from using or buying products made by a business, corporation, or country as an expression of protest. Primary boycotts directly target the offending institution or country, in this case Israel, whereas secondary boycotts attempt to isolate those who trade, invest in, or do business in the state of Israel and thus profit from the oppression of Palestinians. In our case, Coca Cola is a secondary boycott.

While consumer boycotts are unlikely to bring crisis to the Israeli economy alone (we need the D and S too), they remain a powerful tool to demonstrate concrete solidarity. And boycotts work. Sodastream, a company that makes a do it yourself carbonation product, has announced its shutting down its primary factory in an illegal West Bank settlement. This comes after the company witnessed a 70% decline in the value of its profit shares because of BDS activism. Consumer boycotts can also be used as educational tools to raise public awareness and isolate the apartheid state of Israel. While we’ve seen cracks in the corporate media façade supported by US politicians that shields Israeli atrocities from the public and erases Palestinian oppression, we have much more work to do in shifting the narrative. Consumer boycotts can help us do this.

And this brings us to the campaign at hand, the local launch of a national campaign to boycott Coca Cola initiated by USPCN. Why Coca Cola you ask? Because the company has deep roots in supporting zionism and the apartheid state of Israel, both historically and today. From its founding by Zionist U.S. American capitalist Abraham Feinberg in 1968, Coca Cola Israel has supported the apartheid state both materially and ideologically.

Coca Cola Israel, otherwise known as the Central Bottling Company, has held the Israeli franchise for Coca-Cola products since 1968. The company manufactures and distributes much more than just Coke products; in addition to soda, they make and sell dairy products and alcoholic beverages. They sell these products both within apartheid Israel– now controlling over 40% of the Israeli beverage market– and for export. The company operates one of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling facilities worldwide in the Palestinian village of al-Khariyya, renamed Bnei Brak by zionists, whose inhabitants were ethnically cleansed in the 1948 war. In 2002, Coca Cola Israel built another bottling plant in 1948 Palestine (within the borders of what some people today call Israel). Qiryat Gat sits on the stolen land of the villages of Al-Falluja and Iraq al-Manshiya. Coca Cola Israel received $55 million in tax breaks from the Israeli government to built a plant there and thereby reinforce Palestinian land theft.

In addition to significant economic ties within 1948 Palestine, both in the form of bottling plants and through control of the Israeli beverage market, Coca Cola Israel also operates in the Occupied Territories (land that has been illegally occupied by the Israeli military since the 1967 war). The company has subsidiaries in the illegal Jewish-only settlements of Kaztrin (in the Golan Heights) and Shadmot Mechola (in the West Bank). They also own a dairy farm in the occupied section of the Jordan Valley.

This direct profit making from Israeli apartheid and colonial occupation is disturbing, but Coca Cola’s support for zionism goes even deeper. Coca-Cola refused to abide by the decades long Arab League economic boycott of Israel, and thus cost itself the opportunity to sell its products in Arab countries. The company chose to lose profits in order to demonstrate support for Israel. In 1996, the Government of Israel’s Economic Mission honored Coca-Cola at an Israel Trade Award Dinner for this continuous support. Coke also actively encourages other companies to invest in Israel by sponsoring awards to companies that boost the Israeli economy. For example, every year Coca Cola bankrolls the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce Awards, which honors companies that have contributed most to Southeastern U.S.-Israel business relationships.

Furthermore, Coke support Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people. In May 2009, the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce Eagle Star Awards, sponsored by Coca Cola, bestowed the “Community Partner Award” to Israel’s Lobby AIPAC. This same year AIPAC lobbied the Senate to reject the UN call for “immediate ceasefire” and endorse the continuation of the Israel military assault on Gaza. Coca-Cola also hosted a special reception at the Coca-Cola world headquarters in 2009 to honor Israel’s ex-Minister of Defense Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. While now serving as Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor, Ben-Eliezer is a wanted war criminal. In the 1967 war, he participated in the massacre of over 1,000 Egyptian and Palestinian prisoners of war and in his position as Defense Minister, he presided over the horrific massacre at Jenin. Honoring both AIPAC and a zionist war criminal means Coca Cola has blood on its hands.

Coca Cola sponsors human rights abuses beyond Palestine too. Environmentalists have long criticized Coca-Cola for posing a serious threat to communities across the world. In India, the Mehdiganj Coca-Cola plant was recently closed by Indian officials because of its over-utilization of natural water resources which depleted the local groundwater and released pollution above legal limits. In 2003, Colombian trade unionists launched their own boycott of “Killer Coke” because Coca-Cola supports Colombian paramilitary death squads involved in the intimidation, kidnapping, torture, and murder of union leaders.

Why target a multi-billion dollar corporation with global reach instead of a smaller, more moveable target? We see targeting Coke as a way to start conversations about Israeli apartheid, the global BDS movement, and supporting the Palestinian resistance just about anywhere. Beyond the specifics of Coke’s criminal profit making from the oppression of the Palestinian people, Coke holds a pervasive presence in our schools, community centers, places of worship, grocery stores, etc. Coke products and its subsidiaries such as Minute Maid, Dasani, Honest Tea (to name a few) are quite literally everywhere. As a long time campaign, boycotting Coke is a tool to shift the previously mentioned narrative supported by US politicians– one that demonizes Palestinians and holds up Israel as a beacon of democracy instead of exposing the state’s apartheid policies. This coke boycott will give us ammunition to combat the poisonous lies we’re up against through conversations with our families, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow community members.

Jess will now lead us in a discussion on how YOU envision contributing to this community effort and will share some action steps we in the Anti-War Committee have brainstormed but need your help in developing and implementing. Please bring your creative ideas and energy to this discussion! Cus we know, deep in our hearts, that from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!