The Starbucks Boycott: A Useless Campaign to Help Gaza or Israel (And How Americans Can Actually Make a Difference)

Photo via Truthout

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As a year-round fan of Starbucks for its seasonal drinks and central location on campus, my friend Sarah was among the first to tell me that she’d heard from some of her friends that Starbucks had become involved with Israel in their fight against Gaza. Our other close friends, Kat and Sandhya, were quick to cite similar experiences on campus in which students expressed their discomfort with Starbucks’ support for Israel at this time. Through a quick Google search, I found that limited information was published about Starbucks’ support for Israel. Unsure about how and why Starbucks would choose to support an Israeli military campaign, I contacted friends participating in the boycott and further researched Starbucks’ involvement in Israel. I had previously held reservations about Starbucks’ business practices due to their behavior toward union workers, and I feared that Starbucks had made business decisions with a much more dramatic effect through contributions to a war that led to a grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

After looking on social media and talking to participants, I confirmed that many Americans are participating in this movement. Especially given the information on the news and content on social media about the disturbing conditions faced by Palestinians living in Gaza, many Americans are horrified to consider the fact that aid from the United States has supported the Israeli military despite its violence against Gazan civilians. For many Americans who empathize with the victims of this violence perpetrated by the Israeli military, in addition to the Americans who fear for the lives of Israeli civilians whom Hamas has targeted, it seems as though the government and other organizations are contributing to violence in this region. As a result, many Americans seek to support the victims of this war by leveraging their own decision-making power and taking a stand against any company contributing to such a brutal conflict.

For several months, both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel activists have participated in this boycott based on allegations that the coffee shop chain has actively expressed support for both Israel and Hamas after the October 7th attacks. Starbucks stated that they supported neither side, criticizing instead the dramatic number of civilian casualties in both Gaza and Israel. Upon the issuing of this statement, a third sector of supporters emerged, contending that Starbucks’ decision against taking a side in the conflict demonstrated tolerance for continued violence in the region. 

While it seems strange that advocates for Israel and Palestine would both accuse Starbucks of betraying their respective sides, the contrasting arguments both originated with misinformation and biased commentary, leading to a social media frenzy. Starbucks was labeled as an actor in this war after a legal dispute in which unionized Starbucks employees in Workers United posted messages in support of Palestine on social media with the Starbucks logo. This advocacy sparked anger among supporters of Israel, who felt that the posts demonstrated support for Hamas and the death of Israeli civilians. Because the company’s logo was used without permission, Starbucks sued for copyright infringement, arguing that the union was not in a position to speak on behalf of the company, and Starbucks’ PR team announced their neutral stance and overall opposition to violence. After this reaction from Starbucks, the union suggested that this was used as a strategic hit against unionized workers, and many supporters of Palestine were upset by Starbucks’ unwillingness to speak out against such horrific conditions in Gaza. As word spread about the lawsuit, posts began to circulate on social media accusing Starbucks of supporting and funding Israel. They also suggested that Starbucks was suing union members because they were supporting Palestine, presenting the case as an effort to silence advocacy for Palestinians and not a copyright claim. Simultaneously, supporters of Israel argued that the Starbucks Union’s posts had glorified Hamas, continuing to express anger when Starbucks did not do more to express opposition to the violence perpetrated by Hamas. Starbucks’ attempt to recover by expressing neutrality did little to help these problems, with both sides viewing their stance as avoidant. As a result, many people have stopped purchasing from Starbucks in an attempt to stand in solidarity with victims of war. 

Because Starbucks is a neutral third party, though, boycotting the brand does nothing to better conditions for civilians who are being killed in Gaza or along the border in Israel. None of Starbucks’ funding is reaching any of the perpetrators or victims, meaning that, despite noble intentions, participants in the boycott are not helping anyone. 

Outside of this misguided movement, American civilians have been able to influence the global response to this war by more effective means. Palestinian and Arab activists in Michigan, for example, leveraged their vote in the primary election to protest President Biden’s complicity in Israel’s violence against hospitals and Gazan civilians. Writing slogans like “Free Palestine!” or “Ceasefire now!” on their Democratic Primary ballots as a protest vote against Biden, participants were able to catch the attention of the Democratic Party. Michigan, a midwestern swing state, played a crucial role in Biden’s slim 2020 victory, and the state’s Arab population played a crucial role in securing the majority of votes in Michigan based on their voter turnout and consistent support for Biden. Although he won the primary, his 2020 victory was narrow, and he cannot afford to lose votes if he seeks to win re-election in 2024. Based on these protest votes and advocacy from Michigan voters, representatives and senators from the state and national level have advocated for their constituents, increasing support in the state government and in both houses of Congress for a ceasefire agreement and advocacy for Gazans. These elected officials have also made statements advocating for Biden to hold Israel accountable for their violence against civilians, using their larger platforms to get the president’s attention. In an interview with NPR, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign told a reporter that Biden was sending “a team of high-ranking officials” to talk to Michigan voters about their protest votes, stating that Biden recognizes that the election would be “razor-thin close” and that “every vote matters,” so this campaign issue “needs to be worked through” in conversation with Michigan voters.

New York voters had a similar impact on the opposing side of the issue, with Mazi Pilip, an Ethiopian-Israeli candidate for the House of Representatives, gaining traction based on her passion for Israel and personal connection to the conflict. Many Jewish voters appreciate her loyalty, and voters as a collective appreciate her desire for a ceasefire agreement. Both Pilip, the Republican candidate, and her Democratic counterpart have made advocacy for Israeli hostages and a ceasefire a central pillar of their campaigns, posing together in a photo as “a show of solidarity for Israeli hostages.” 

With voters collectivizing as supporters of a ceasefire and Israel or Gaza, they have been able to encourage elected officials and candidates to adopt a firmer stance on American relations with Israel, depending on their point of view. While the Starbucks boycott has no tangible impact on any civilians experiencing the effects of this war, these activists are shaping the stance of the American government, a much more powerful actor with significant influence over military aid to Israel and humanitarian aid to civilians.

Other Americans have been able to support suffering civilians by fundraising for humanitarian efforts and staying updated on the conflict in the face of misinformation. While many Americans want to help, misunderstanding the actors in this war and the nature of the conflict has led to many people supporting ineffective measures to end the violence, such as boycotting Starbucks. By relying on reputable sources and staying up to date on the war, activists can determine how to support the cause effectively. Donating to humanitarian organizations, such as those compiled in a list by NPR, can provide lifesaving support to civilians in Gaza and on the Israeli border who lack access to food, clean water, medical resources and blood, financial support, shelter, and other necessary materials. Many of these organizations rely on individual donations to support those suffering, so even small donations significantly impact those who need aid. Anera’s website says that the organization can pay for 16 bags of blood for injured civilians with a $30 donation, and a $50 donation can pay for enough food to feed 180 people. Similarly, Save the Children says that only $5 is needed to provide a blanket to a child in a warzone, and the International Rescue Committee matches all small donations, doubling the impact of your support for those in need. Instead of simply boycotting Starbucks on the principle of ending the war, one could use the $5 they would typically spend on coffee to provide resources for the war’s victims, creating a tangible impact.

While there are effective measures that Americans can take to benefit victims of violence in the Middle East, this Starbucks boycott isn’t benefiting Gazans or Israelis in any way. There are valid criticisms to be made of Starbucks, as outlined in Kimberly Turtell’s recent article, “Dirty Chai or Dirty Labor Practices?”  about Starbucks’ business practices, but allegations of involvement in Gaza or Israel are false portrayals of a copyright lawsuit that were blown out of proportion on social media. While participants in the boycott have positive intent, they could much more effectively influence action to stop violence in Gaza by using their vote to express their frustrations or by supporting the many organizations that are providing necessities for the victims of this humanitarian emergency.

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This article was edited by Inna Volovich.