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Marks and Spencer's support for Israel and Zionism
Marks and Spencer's won the The Queen's Award For Enterprise Innovation in 2000 for the development of "Secret Support" lingerie. It has been said that every woman in England used to own at least one pair of M&S knickers, because if she didn't buy them herself, her mother would.
In Ireland, the company has operated successfully for a number of years, although a 1990's plan to place a Marks and Spencers store in close proximity to every Dunnes Stores outlet in the country came to nothing. A recent round of store closures and job losses in Britain has not had an effect on M&S shops in Ireland, since the company is so successful here.
However, activists in Britain are often surprised by the lack of awareness in this country of the nasty side of Marks and Spencers. It's not just the lingerie that has "secret support".
Marks & Spencer was founded in 1884 by a Jewish refugee from Minsk, Michael Marks. The store grew from a single market stall to a chain of department stores all over Britain. In 1916, Michael Marks's son, Simon Marks, took over as chairman and he approached a friend of his, Israel Sieff, to help him run the company. Sieff had supported Zionism since meeting Chaim Weizmann in 1913, and was committed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland state in Palestine.
The Marks-Sieff partnership went beyond business and entered into a campaign of fervent Zionist activity. Together with Weizmann, Marks and Sieff lobbied and manipulated the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main representative organisation for Jews in England. In what was a called a coup, they ousted the anti-Zionists on the Board of Deputies and also set up a Palestine office in London. They helped along the 1917 Balfour Declaration which was a statement of Britain's support for a Jewish state. The following year Israel Sieff headed a Zionist commission, and then served as Weizmann's secretary at the Versailles Conference on the future of Europe and the world after the First World War.
Sieff's wife (and Simon Marks's sister) Rebecca Sieff helped found WIZO, the Women's Zionist Organization, and ran it for 20 years with Vera Weizmann.
The Daniel Sieff Institute, established by Isreal and Rebecca Sieff in 1934 in memory of their son who had died, served as the base when the Weizmann Institute of Science was set up near Tel Aviv after World War Two. The Weizman Institute was essential to Israel's development of nuclear weapons.
But M&S links to Israel and Zionism are not just historical, the company still supports the Israeli state today. The Zionist government has even honoured the company with a special award for services to Israel.
In a book on M&S, Lord Marcus Sieff - Israel Sieff's son and long time Chairman of M&S - wrote that one of the fundamental objectives of Marks and Spencers is to aid the economic development of Israel (Management: The Marks & Spencer Way, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1990).
Today the company imports many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Israeli goods into Britain and Ireland every year, and is one of the strongest supporters of preferential trade agreements with Israel. In a recent report the Guardian newspaper found that goods from illegal settlements in Palestine were labeled as "produce of Israel" and sold in M&S stores.
However, the company is secretive about its activities and tries not to trumpet its connections with Israel too publicly. Instead M&S calls attention to various environmental initiatives in its stores (which will save it money), and handouts it makes to charities.
Activists have attempted to get the company to admit whether it still makes a cash donation to the Israeli state but have been met with silence. It may be that subventions to the Zionists are simply disguised on the company's books in extremely preferential trade terms for Israeli companies.
Stores have been targeted and customers leafleted by activists in Britain and Ireland, and many people who have knowledge of the activities onf M&S refuse to shop there. While the number of companies who trade with Israel can be a long and daunting list to remember, simply boycotting Marks and Spencer is a simple way to express solidarity with the beleagured people of Palestine. Although the company pretends to have a normal relationship with Isreal, the company received the Jubilee Award, Israel's highest tribute, from Israeli PM Benny Netanyahu in 1998. Recently, a Marks and Spencer's spokesman told the Jewish Chronicle newspaper "We are as close to Israel as we have ever been".