Hot chocolate and war crimes

The probable opening of a Max Brenner chocolate store at UNSW this year has prompted concerned students to question the decision to allow on campus a corporation affiliated with elements of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), who are accused of war crimes against the Palestinian people.

Acting President of Students for Justice in Palestine UNSW, Ali Hosseini, told Tharunka that he was disappointed that a respected academic institution such as the university would “stoop so low as to do business with Max Brenner”, demanding the university withdraw from working with the company.

Concerns with Max Brenner stem from the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, formed in 2005 by 171 Palestinian non-government organisations, with the aim of securing the self-determination of the Palestinian people by exercising non-violent punitive measures against the Israeli state.

The owner of the Max Brenner chain, the Israeli conglomerate Strauss Group, supports and provides “care rations” for the Israeli military, including the Golani and Givati brigades of the IDF. Both brigades stand accused of war crimes in the Palestinian territories during the 2008/09 Gaza War, which saw the deaths of over 1300 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians.

Israel has refused to cooperate with a United Nations investigation into the war, and has also refused entry into Israel to Richard Falk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, since his appointment in 2008.

According to Hosseini, it is this link to the Strauss Group that implicates Max Brenner, and in turn UNSW, in the human rights abuses of the Israeli state. “Support for a company like Max Brenner is support for military occupation and settlement expansion on Palestinian land,” he said.

“UNSW hosts a wide range of students from around the world who are very much concerned with the ethical and humanitarian issues surrounding the business deals UNSW engages in.”

However, the move to allow a Max Brenner store on campus comes after the chocolate shop was identified in the top three food and beverage outlet suggestions by students and staff in the 2011 Retail Survey conducted by UNSW.

The survey was completed by nearly 7000 students and staff, the most successful participation rate of any survey conducted by UNSW.

Neil Morris, Vice-President of University Services, told Tharunka the results of the 2011 Retail Survey “drove almost 100 per cent” the eventual decisions as to which food outlets to allow on campus.

Steven Tropoulos, Property Services Manager at Facilities Management, also cited experiential and commercial concerns as deciding factors in addition to the survey results, but added,  “It wasn’t an autocratic decision; it was a democratic process.”

Morris agreed, “Did everybody get a vote? Obviously not. But was everybody asked to have a vote? Yes.”

Morris confirmed Max Brenner had placed a tender to lease retail space at UNSW, and was selected by the university due to — amongst financial considerations — the ability of the company to fulfil the demand for a chocolate store as indicated in the 2011 Retail Survey.

“I think it’s a very big jump to say the university is implicitly condoning the actions of war criminals by doing business with Max Brenner,” Morris said, while acknowledging students are entitled to hold a different opinion on the BDS campaign against the company.

“We’re not doing anything different to what many [local] councils do in letting Max Brenner stores open. Our view would be that we’re putting a provider of chocolate on campus; a provider that people are happy to have on campus.”

The President of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students UNSW also contended the Max Brenner store will be a popular addition to campus food outlets.

“I think members of the UNSW community at large might be a bit disappointed if fringe groups turn this into something political, when the students really just want to enjoy some incredible chocolate.”

Antony Loewenstein, co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, told Tharunka such views ignore the political positions of corporations, and fail to acknowledge the complicity of Max Brenner in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

“The reality is this is not just a chocolate shop. There has been a deliberate attempt by the organisation to normalise the shop, but corporations don’t operate in a moral, legal and ethical vacuum,” he said. “Max Brenner has made a determined effort for a number of years to be directly connected to the IDF.”

“I would say to university management that if you open a Max Brenner on campus, you are guaranteeing legitimate peaceful protest against that shop. And if that’s the kind of attraction you want to have at the university, then go right ahead.”

SRC Ethnic Affairs Officer, Charlotte Lewis, expressed scepticism at the likelihood of a BDS campaign against Max Brenner succeeding at UNSW.

“As university students in Sydney, I feel we should be focussing more on university life and life in Australia, rather than protesting things that are really beyond anyone’s control in Australia,” she said. “However, it’s good to protest if students want to get their voices heard.”

UNSW student Bec Hynek, member of the Palestine Action Group Sydney and Jews Against the Occupation, said Australian university students have a history of protesting global concerns.

“Students have often been at the forefront of being opposed to apartheid in South Africa and being involved in anti-war movements. It’s students especially who have a stake in not accepting [Max Brenner] on our campus.”

Loewenstein agreed. “Having spent a lot of time in Palestine, it does make a difference to people there under occupation to feel like individuals or groups on the other side of the world are providing political and moral support to their cause.”

Noted American political critic and author, Noam Chomsky, told Tharunka that participation in the BDS campaign is a valid means of protest for individuals worldwide against corporations, such as Max Brenner, affiliated with the Israeli state.

“There is no serious doubt that all Israeli settlements and development in the occupied territories are in violation of core principles of international law. This has been determined by every relevant authority: the United Nations Security Council, the International Court of Justice and, in the case of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, Security Council resolutions specific to those cases. Israel’s leading legal authorities advised the government that all settlements programs are in violation of international law in late 1967, when the programs were being initiated.

“Human Rights Watch has urged the US government to withhold funding to Israel ‘in an amount equivalent to its expenditures on settlements and related infrastructure in the West Bank’, and to bar tax exemption from organisations ‘that support settlements and settlement-related activities’.

“The same considerations hold for individuals. It is their responsibility to avoid any support for Israel’s illegal activities in the occupied territories. Individuals can meet this responsibility by participating in such activities as boycotts, and pressures for sanctions and divestment.

“These are entirely legitimate and demonstrably effective methods of non-violent action to oppose severe criminal acts, which are causing immense suffering and standing in the way of hope for a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

Max Brenner Australia declined the opportunity to comment on this issue, instead directing Tharunka to General Manager Yael Kaminski’s comments in The Australian, which staunchly deny any connection beyond brand ownership between the Strauss Group and Max Brenner Australia.

Ammy Singh