Activists preventing the unloading of Israeli cargo ships at the Oakland Port in protest of violations of Palestinian rights have drawn the ire of Israel advocacy groups.
Last week, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, wrote a letter to the chief of the Oakland Police Department, Sean Whent, chastizing his department for failing to “intervene and ensure that the Zim ship could unload its cargo.”
“Anti-Semitic protesters have been blocking vessels owned by Zim Integrated Shipping Ltd., an Israel-based shipping company, from docking at the Port of Oakland, and preventing dockworkers from unloading the cargo,” Klein complains in his letter. “This problem occurred for several days in August and it occurred again last week.”
Klein’s letter, excerpts of which were printed in The Jerusalem Post, seizes on a dockworkers union’s characterization of the protesters as “threatening,” and questions why the police did not do more to squelch the demonstration.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union stated after the last protest on 27 September that “Longshoremen and Clerks trying to report to work were threatened physically at some points of ingress and their personal vehicles were physically blocked.”
The Zionist Organization of America’s Klein writes:
“Why didn’t the police intervene and ensure that international commerce could proceed unimpeded? Why didn’t the police arrest the protesters, who may well have violated the law by physically threatening dockworkers, physically blocking personal vehicles, and preventing the ship from docking and unloading as authorized?”
Klein’s public relations manager declined to give The Electronic Intifada the full letter because he did not want his client to be “conveyed in any negative context.”
In August, another Israel advocacy group, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), issued a press statement condemning the port protests as an “overt expression of extremism” that “unjustly singles out” Israel.
A public records request to the City of Oakland reveals that the port managers met with leaders of the JCRC on 31 July in preparation for the protests scheduled for August.
Emails between Myrna David, JCRC East Bay Regional Director, and city councilmember Dan Kalb indicate the latter was invited but declined to attend the meeting.
Following the meeting, David wrote to Kalb, “We got the impression OPD [Oakland Police Department] is expected on the scene and should be well prepared.”
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC, was included on the email thread. Kahn is a leading anti-Palestinian voice in the Bay Area and vocal opponent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The JCRC and Kahn have a long history of organizing against and stifling Palestine support work in the Bay Area, as has been documented previously by The Electronic Intifada.
In 2006, the JCRC characterized a proposed mural at San Francisco State University, designed to honor the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, as “threatening” to Jewish students on campus. The group helped pressure the university administration to censor the imagery in the mural.
Using a similar charge, in 2007, the JCRC worked with the Anti-Defamation League to pressure the San Francisco Arts Commission to compel artists working on a local mural to eliminate Palestinian symbols from it.
And in 2011, the JCRC played a central role in pressuring the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) in Oakland to cancel an exhibition of drawings done by Palestinian children from Gaza which Kahn said could “potentially create an unsafe atmosphere for Jewish children.”
The JCRC did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.
Seeking the intervention of the police and local government leaders, port representatives have expressed concern that the site has become a regular target for political protests since the Occupy movement emerged in late 2011.
“The Port has become a focal point for demonstrators as an outgrowth of two prior shutdowns of the Port due to the Occupy Movement. The Port of Oakland was the only port in the United States in which operations were halted due to the Occupy demonstrations. Given that well publicized success, the Port of Oakland is now a constant target of those who want to amplify their voice regarding their opinions of any number of issues.”
Robert Bernardo, spokesperson for the Port of Oakland, told The Electronic Intifada that he was not aware of any ongoing conversations with community groups such as the JCRC, but emphasized that the port is “working closely with law enforcement and our business partners to ensure flow of commerce continues even in the case of a peaceful protest.”
“We at the Port of Oakland support free speech, but our main priority is to keep goods flowing,” Bernardo said.
When asked to describe how they would “ensure” that, Bernardo conceded that it was not possible to predict or go into the details.
Activists in California prevented two vessels belonging to Israel’s largest shipping company from unloading any of its cargo at the Oakland port for two weekends in the last two months, and the Block the Boat Coalition is planning another protest for 25 October.
The coalition which planned August’s protest that brought out thousands of demonstrators to the port and prevented the ship’s unloading for four consecutive days say they hope to build a broad base of support for the actions by strengthening ties between the workers and Palestine solidarity groups.
“The Zim Line reflects the huge flow of capital from Israel into the Bay Area and it is an opportunity for building a relationship between workers and Palestine solidarity activists,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, said in August.
And despite the language used by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in their 27 September statement, Block the Boat organizers have stressed their outreach to dock workers and organized labor for the protest later this month.
Contrary to some media reports as well as a statement issued by the ILWU, the repeat of the picket line last month was not organized by the same Block the Boat coalition which plannd the August action. A new group calling itself the “Stop Zim Action Committee” called for the picket line, and successfully convinced workers to abstain from working the Zim Line on the morning of 27 September.
ILWU has a long history of refusing to load ships from countries engaging in gross violations of human rights. In the 1930s, West Coast dockworkers refused to load and offload ships belonging to Italy after they invaded Ethiopia, and Japan after it invaded Manchuria.
In 1978 and 1980, ILWU refused to load military cargo headed for Chile and El Salvador, respectively. And in 1984, the union refused to unload a South African ship for eleven consecutive days.