Israel’s settlement industry under boycott pressure

Israeli and international activists in Jerusalem protest the construction of the Museum of Tolerance atop Mamilla cemetery, April 2009. (Meged Gozani/Activestills.org)


Palestinian activists in the occupied West Bank have called for the boycott of the popular Rami Levy Israeli supermarket chain which has several stores inside Israel’s illegal settlements. Activists say they will call on fellow Palestinians to “avoid supporting the occupation and settlements’ economy by boycotting Israeli goods and settlement stores.”

A vigil was to be held today outside the Rami Levy store inside the Sha’ar Binyamin settlement south of Bethlehem, along Route 60 which connects Jerusalem to settlement blocs in the southern West Bank. Activists with the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) said in a press release that the chain is “popular among some Palestinian shoppers, attracting its clientele through cheap pricing” (“Palestinians to Call for Boycott of Israeli Goods in front of Settlement Supermarket,” 22 September 2010).

In its press release, the PSCC stated that “demonstrators will also remind Palestinians that Rami Levy, the owner of the supermarket chain, is a member of the Jerusalem municipality, and as such is directly complicit in Jerusalem house demolitions and city-sponsored settler takeovers of Palestinian homes.”

Mohammed Khatib, a PSCC organizer from the West Bank village of Bilin, said in the release that “the Palestinian market is one of the main export markets for Israel. It is absurd for us to support our own repression in this way, especially when viable alternatives exist. Every shekel to Rami Levy is a shekel to the continuation of the occupation. This must stop.”

Cultural figures pledge to boycott settlements

Meanwhile, a growing cultural boycott movement against the settlement industry by Jewish and Israeli artists and actors is gaining international support. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry and composer Daniel Barenboim have signed on to the boycott statement, which was written by a group of Israeli actors who last month publicly refused to perform in a new center for performing arts located inside the Ariel settlement (“Israeli actors say no to normalizing settlements,” 27 August 2010 [PDF]).

Drafted by US group Jewish Voice for Peace, the statement has already been signed by “over 200 theater and film professionals representing some of the most respected and renowned artists in theater and film — including Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Pulitzer prize-winner Stephen Sondheim, Julianne Moore, film director Mira Nair, Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, 21-time Tony winner Harold Prince, star of the film Yentl, Mandy Patinkin, Fiddler on the Roof star and Cameri co-founder Theodore Bikel, Jennifer Tilly, Harry Potter’s Miriam Margolyes, Ed Asner, Wallace Shawn and Focus Films’ James Schamus among many others,” JVP stated in a press release (“Breaking: Architect Frank Gehry supports Israeli settlement boycott,” Jewish Voice for Peace press release, 20 September 2010).

JVP reported that earlier this year, Frank Gehry stepped down as the architect for the Museum of Tolerance in West Jerusalem, which is being funded by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Museum is being built atop the ancient Muslim cemetery of Mamilla, where graves are being regularly destroyed as museum construction pushes forward.

JVP’s Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky said, “It is particularly critical for architects to speak out against the ongoing construction of Jewish-only communities on Palestinian land. Architects and planners are the key implementers of the Israeli policy of taking and brutally occupying Palestinian land in violation of international law. For Mr. Gehry to take such a moral stand once and for all ends the mythical firewall between architecture, policy and human rights. We hope Israeli architects will be inspired to launch their own campaign to refuse to work in the settlements.”

US grocery boycott proposal thwarted

Also this week, United States boycott activists in Port Townsend, Washington, reported that on 21 September the Board of Directors for a local food co-op had rejected a proposal to pull Israeli products from its shelves. The decision followed an intervention from the Israeli Deputy Consul for the Pacific Northwest earlier in the week (“Port Townsend Food Co-op rejects proposal to boycott Israel on technicality,” JeffCoWA BDS press release, 21 September 2010).

On 19 September, Israeli Deputy Consul Gideon Lustig, who is based in San Francisco, traveled to the city in an attempt to pressure the co-op into rejecting the growing call for boycott. Lustig reportedly met privately with board members to explicitly discuss the boycott campaign. Organizer Dena Shunra commented after the decision by a vote of 4-2 against the boycott, “In five, ten, or fifteen years, when the full impact of what happens in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel becomes as known to the world as earlier crimes, I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and say we did everything we could to stop the killing.”

According to the Jefferson County boycott group, five member-owners of the food co-op presented a proposal to the board of directors “asking the store to pull seven products from its shelves until Israel complies with UN decisions regarding occupied territories and lifts both the siege on Gaza and apartheid on Palestinians.” Supporters of the boycott move have gathered hundreds of signatures in support of the proposal, the committee added in a press release earlier this week (“Israel’s Consul-General interferes in boycott process,” 20 September 2010).

The Port Townsend Co-op’s boycott initiative follows a groundbreaking move by the Olympia Food Co-op, also in Washington state, earlier this summer. Olympia Food Co-op board members voted to pull Israeli-made items from store shelves and refused to meet with the Deputy Consul General in private after his attempt to do so. Boycott organizers in Port Townsend say that despite their co-op’s decision against the boycott proposal, the “momentum will continue.”

Boycott momentum grows in US and UK

In California, the Israeli Divestment Campaign (www.israeldivestmentcampaign.org) launched a ballot initiative on 8 September which would require public and state agencies, including teachers’ investment funds, to divest from Israeli companies that violate Palestinians’ human rights. Organizers say the initiative “prohibits state retirement funds from investing in companies engaged in certain business activities in Israel,” and that “public pension funds in Norway and Sweden have already divested from one of the companies identified by the initiative organizers.”

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) meanwhile announced that more than 500 academics have signed on as endorsers to its initiative. “When originally founded in 2009, only a handful of academics called for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel,” USACBI said in a statement (“Over 500 academics have endorsed USACBI,” 20 September 2010). Referring to Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and co-founder of the anti-boycott International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, USACBI stated: “The call was dismissed as having little to no significance and was reflected in the statement from Gerald Steinberg. For Steinberg and others, the power of an academic and cultural boycott would be achieved with a critical mass of 500 endorsers.”

After the US academic boycott initiative began with 15 signatories of academic and cultural workers, Steinberg told the New York-based Jewish Daily in February 2009 that “the danger is not these 15; the danger is if the [boycott] becomes 500.”

“This is a major victory for the growing academic and cultural boycott of Israel,” USACBI said. “There is a growing shift in the tide of public opinion in the US which has only swelled in the wake of Israel’s massacre of international activists and relief workers on humanitarian aid flotillas off the coast of Gaza in international waters on 31 May.”

Additionally, in the United Kingdom, trade unions have “thrown their weight” behind a broad-based divestment and boycott campaign from companies which profit from the Israeli occupation (www.palestinecampaign.org/). Organizers said in a press release on their website that “trade unions voted unanimously [on 14 September] at the Trade Union’s Congress (TUC) annual conference for a motion put forward by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, seconded by the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union, and supported by [trade union] UNISON, the Public and Commercial Services Union, and the Fire Brigades’ Union.”

Organizers added: “the motion called for the General Council to work closely with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to actively encourage affiliates, employers and pension funds to disinvest from, and boycott the goods of, companies who profit from illegal settlements, the Occupation and construction of the Apartheid Wall.”

And finally, internationally-renowned folk musician and social justice activist Pete Seeger is being pressured by global boycott groups to cancel a planned appearance for 14 November — over the Internet — during a virtual event coordinated by an Israeli environmental group, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Billing the event as a “rally for a better Middle East,” Arava has been identified as an organization in partnership with the Jewish National Fund. In a press release directed at the boycott initiative, Arava stated that Seeger is “absolutely committed to his participation in the virtual rally.”

The Israeli activist organization Boycott From Within drafted a public letter to Seeger appealing to him to cancel his appearance and involvement with the event: “It is clear that you believe you are heading to an event that will be promoting peace,” the letter stated. “This ‘virtual rally for a better Middle East’ will be promoting a mainstream Israeli institution that claims to promote cooperation and peace. However this is done in a non-political context while ignoring the imbalance of power and the daily injustice the Palestinians are enduring. Just very recently in the Negev, Israeli Bedouins had been evicted by force from their lands to make room for whatever seems best to the Jewish majority and authority. This is sadly a common event, one of many faces of the Israeli Apartheid,” the statement added (“Boycott!’s letter to Pete Seeger,” 30 August 2010).