Boycott & sanctions movement targets Puma
Once a month, a group of protestors demonstrates in front of the Somerville storefront of the sports equipment manufacturer Puma to protest the corporation’s involvement with the Israel Football Association — an organization activists say contributes to an apartheid system in Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies.
The protests, which began in December, are part of a larger international movement called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) that is seeking to pressure governments and corporations to stop doing business with Israel until the country ends its military occupation and illegal settlement of Palestinian land, grants equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel and allows refugees expelled from the country in 1948 and their descendants to return to their homes.
It may seem far afield for local residents, but for BDS Boston organizer John Russell, the local connection is his tax dollars.
“Living in the United States, we’ve got to focus on what the United States is doing,” he said in an interview via Zoom. “There are a lot of bad things happening in a lot of countries, but the United States is giving Israel billions of dollars in military aid. They are contributing to the erasure of an entire people.”
The global BDS movement has drawn prominent activists from around the world, including prominent academics like Angela Davis and Cornell West, who two weeks ago cited his opposition to Israel’s occupation among the reasons he was not considered for tenure at Harvard University.
Palestinians living in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem face numerous hardships imposed by the Israeli government, including house demolitions; forced removals of communities; a system of restricted roads and checkpoints that cut their communities off from each other; illegal settlements in which only Jewish Israelis can live; arrests and detention of children as young as 12 years old; and restrictions on international travel.
While the International Criminal Court is launching an investigation of Israeli war crimes, the move faces opposition from the United States, which in 2020 supplied Israel with $3.8 billion in military aid and $8 billion in loan guarantees.
Puma drew fire from BDS activists in 2018 when it signed a four-year sponsorship deal with the Israel Football Association (IFA). Because the IFA includes teams from the Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land, and because the teams within Israel often discriminate against Muslim and Christian players, Palestinian players began boycotting the brand.
The same year Puma signed its deal with IFA, the brand also launched a social justice-themed #REFORM campaign, inspired by track star Tommie Smith’s raised-fist protest during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
But in response to calls for a boycott of the Israeli occupation, the company has taken a decidedly apolitical stance.
“PUMA is committed to creating footwear, apparel and accessories for everyone,” the firm said in a statement sent to BDS activists. “We do support and outfit athletes from all backgrounds, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation and national origin. PUMA does not support any political direction, political parties or governments. Our devotion to universal equality is aligned with the fundamental principles of our #REFORM platform.”
For local BDS activists, the corporation’s hashtag activism doesn’t cut it.
“Puma is involved in kind of a cultural sort of ‘sportswashing’ of Israel — this idea that Israel, through its promotion of sports, is engaging in culturally appropriate, good things,” said BDS Boston activist Ragini Shah. “In fact, Puma is supporting the Israel Football Association, which engages in intentional discrimination and is part of the apparatus that that continues to build settlements illegally in occupied territories.”
While there are many corporations that do business in Israel and in the settlements it illegally occupies on Palestinian land, the BDS movement commonly focuses its firepower on high-profile targets. In 2018, Airbnb agreed to stop listing rentals in Israel’s illegal settlements under pressure from activists. Local activists are targeting the Assembly Row storefront in part because Puma is building its corporate headquarters a few blocks away.
“We believe we’re most effective when our voices are concentrated all at once on individual targets, rather than being diffused across different companies who are involved in Israel settlement enterprise or the conditions of apartheid on the ground,” said William Ruhn, an organizer with BDS Boston. “I would liken it right to targeting busing in Montgomery.”
The BDS movement drew inspiration from the divestment movement that brought international pressure to bear on the Apartheid government of South Africa — a government that restricted the rights of Blacks to live where they wanted, to work and to travel, confining them to the status of second-class citizens.
Palestinian activists see parallels between the apartheid South African government’s strategies for subjugating Blacks and the current Israeli government’s tactics, which has many Palestinians confined in small residential areas that are cut off from schools, hospitals, jobs and other towns and villages by checkpoints and separation walls, much in the same way Black South Africans were confined to Bantustans in the apartheid system.
BDS Boston’s Russell notes that the boycott movement against South Africa had its roots in Boston, where Polaroid workers Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams spearheaded a movement to prevent the company from selling its technology to the South African government, which used Polaroid imaging to manufacture passbooks Black South Africans were required to carry.
Ruhn said local BDS organizers got a boost recently when Hunter spoke with them about her experiences in the anti-apartheid movement.
At the time of the meeting, he recalls, he was feeling somewhat discouraged by the seemingly slow pace of progress in the global BDS movement.
“Caroline walked in and looked at me and put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey, it took us eight years, and they did not listen to us. We kept trying and trying, and nobody cared. You’re just at the beginning, you’ve been doing this two years,’” Ruhn said.
While the movement is in its early stages, BDS Boston activist Tala Bello says it’s already having an effect.
“I think, watching how much money and effort Israel is spending on their Brand Israel campaign to get their name out in cultural spaces shows how scared they are of the BDS movement,” she said. “They’re really pushing their image in a lot of different places, which makes me as a Palestinian happy to see that they’re clearly scared of what the BDS movement is doing.”