Why boycott: The case of McDonald’s

On January 11, McDonald’s Lebanon announced a new limited edition Sujuk burger. This decision was perceived by citizens as a means to attract consumers, after many had taken an active decision to boycott the chain.

In late 2023, McDonald’s “Israel” expressed support for the Israeli occupation by offering occupation forces free meals, after they had launched a genocidal campaign on the Palestinian people and began carpet bombing Gaza after Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. 

Since then, McDonald’s Israel, currently operating over 170 branches in occupied Palestine, has donated thousands of meals to the Israeli military forces.

What is BDS? Why does it matter?

BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is a pro-Palestinian movement seeking freedom, justice, and equality. It was launched in 2005 as a force to challenge and end the international support for Israel.

One of the key pillars of the BDS movement is encouraging boycott campaigns against Israel’s apartheid regime, and against Israeli and international institutions and companies participating in and profiting off of the violation of Palestinian human rights.

The official BDS movement has not initiated a boycott of McDonald’s in any country, but has supported international calls due to the company’s donations to the occupation’s military. In fact, grassroots organic boycott campaigns were the ones to target McDonald’s, along with other restaurants such as Burger King, Pizza Hut, and more.

Activists in Malaysia also called for the boycott of the fast food chain, which is owned by the Saudi company Lionhorn Pte Ltd. The company has since filed a lawsuit against BDS Malaysia for calls to boycott, accusing the group of “defamation” and seeking over one million US dollars in reparations, despite the fact that activists themselves had called for the boycott rather than the official BDS movement.

This was not the first time McDonald’s Malaysia took actions against activists for boycotting the franchise. In 2017, the US president at the time, Donald Trump, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and stated plans to move the US embassy there, quickly prompting calls for boycott.

This caused McDonald’s Malaysia to file a police report against 20 individuals and non-governmental organizations who called for the boycott, claiming they are spreading lies and slander.

McDonald’s historical support for the Israeli occupation

The role McDonald’s has played in support of the Israeli regime goes beyond donations to its occupying forces and oppressing callers to boycott. As is typical of most fast food chains, McDonald’s has often localized its menu to the country in which it is operating in to attract the local community. For example, the Butter Chicken Burger in McDonald’s India and the Bulgogi Burger in McDonald’s Korea are two prime examples of an international chain localizing its products. 

In the case of occupied Palestine, Israel has, for decades, tried to appropriate Palestinian cuisine and culture by claiming that dishes such as falafel, humus, and knafeh nabulsi are part of their local cuisine. This is done in order to create the facade of an ancestral connection to the land. 

In ‘Israel’, McDonald’s offers the McKebab and the McFalafel in all its restaurants, bolstering Israel’s claims that these are ‘Israeli’ dishes as opposed to Palestinian. It is worth noting that kebab and falafel are largely considered levantine dishes, but these menu items are not offered in other McDonald’s franchises across the Arab world. 

So why is the new Sujuk Burger at McDonald’s Lebanon problematic? 

McDonald’s is, once again, localizing its menu as a marketing stunt to win back their Lebanese audience, after many have actively taken the decision to boycott. This campaign was also announced a few days after McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski announced that their business in the Middle East has been negatively affected by the boycott, while still claiming McDonald’s support for ‘Israel’ is misinformation. 

McDonald’s HQ claims that it has “no position” regarding the “war”, and different franchises across the Arab World have claimed that they operate autonomously. 

Had this burger’s announcement come under better circumstances, McDonald’s probably wouldn’t have received such criticism. 

Nevertheless, the fact that it was announced months after the war began, giving the team ample time to reassess this campaign, ultimately demonstrates a great deal of insensitivity by McDonald’s and the involved parties towards the many lives lost during the genocide, and the Lebanese people who have chosen to support Palestine through boycotting.

Divesting from international companies, investing in local ones

Critics of the boycott movements claim that these boycotts won’t help the Palestinian people, and only seek to hurt the economy and the jobs of the employees in these franchises. 

In reality, boycotts push consumers to stop funding international organizations and instead seek local alternatives, which ultimately benefits local businesses, workers, and the national economy. 

Whatever amount of money consumers spent at McDonald’s can still be spent elsewhere, with the economy largely intact. 

. As for the case of Lebanese employees losing their jobs at those franchises, the purpose of the boycott is to pressure those companies to stop aiding the Israeli government and not to drive them out of business. 

Should the boycotts be so successful that they do in fact lead to closures or mass layoffs, one would hope that growing local businesses would provide more opportunities for employment.

In early December, the head of the Jordanian Labor Observatory, Ahmad Awad, predicted there would be massive layoffs as a result of the boycotts, claiming a potential 15,000 employees would lose their jobs. However, activists in Jordan proposed solutions to mitigate the impact of the boycotts on the local economy such as selling franchise licenses. The observatory highlights the importance of collaboration between the government, civil society, and private corporations to handle this issue. 

Rather than encouraging passive consumerism, boycotts create conscious consumers, who by choosing to invest in local alternatives, slowly contribute towards dismantling the hegemony international corporations have on various products worldwide. 

A recent demonstration of this is how many companies decided to close their operations in Russia due to its war with Ukraine in 2022. As a result, local restaurants opened in their place, such as “Vkusno & Tochka” opening in former McDonald’s locations with an almost identical menu. Since then, the Russian economy remained strong despite all foreign company withdrawals and the economic sanctions the country has faced. 

Boycotting remains one of the most effective ways to exert pressure on international companies and institutions, as it hinders the flow of income and cripples corporations to the point of desperation. Through boycotting, there remains hope that businesses like McDonald’s would suffer enough to stop its aid for Israel. 

At the very least, it is a means to fight back against the world order.

McDonald’s new sujuk burger probably won’t be the last marketing campaign of its kind – other brands such as Starbucks might even follow suit. But even if one believes their claims that the local branches do not support ‘Israel’, apathy must be expected from their end. 

As Israel appears to have no plans to stop their atrocities until they expel all Palestinians from their land, activists and human rights groups all remain pushing for global boycotts and other means of aiding the Palestinian people and cause.