Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pushing Back Against the BDS Bullies

Too often the media focus on – or even actively promote – the pro-Palestinian narrative that demonizes Israel. They report on the highly mobilized, relentless efforts to isolate and economically weaken the state of Israel. Much less often, if ever, do the media highlight stories of successful Israeli resistance to that onslaught.
Shanie Bar-Oz is the dynamic owner of a Vancouver bath-and-body boutique called Lavan Canada that sells unique Dead Sea-based products with natural scents. Prominently displayed both outside and inside the store are signs reading “Products Made in Israel.” Very enthusiastic about those Israeli-made products, Shanie, 33, unexpectedly came under fire from aggressive protesters from the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions bullies. Check out this video which depicts protesters chanting and carrying signs with ludicrous claims such as “Lavan Soap Whitewashes Israeli Occupation.”
The repeated protests became not only obstructive to her business, but more frightening to Shanie and her employees as well. “I really feel all alone here,” said Shanie. “I'm a sitting duck and I don't feel safe.” But when word got out about her being targeted, the supportive response was more overwhelming than the protests. Pro-Israel customers flocked to the store. Lavan Canada’s online orders increased as well. A Cambridge University student named Gili Brenner established a Facebook group called “We Are All Shani Bar Oz,” in support of the store owner:
I launched the group on Facebook because first we must show moral support and also buy the products. Yet beyond that, we need people in Israel to wake up and think about the steps needed in order to put an end to this madness.
Indeed, Israel’s supporters everywhere need to wake up and actively support businesses like Shanie’s. Her story is an instructive and inspirational one of ongoing, street-level resistance to the Israel-hating bullies – resistance from her, her customers and her supporters. They refused to be bullied and they banded together to help the store prosper, to stand in defense of Israelis and Israel, and to outnumber her enemies.
I talked to Shanie Bar-Oz about the empowering experience.
Mark Tapson:         How exactly did this controversy begin? What happened outside your store, Lavan Canada?
Shanie Bar-Oz:       About three or four days prior to the first picket, I received an email from The Jewish Federation warning me of an impending demonstration against my store. The first picket was quite small, totaling about ten or twelve protesters carrying white signs, Palestinian flags and inciting chants. Thankfully, due to the prior warning, many local Jews and Israelis came out to support me and my store. This was not the case for the next two protests, which they intentionally kept secret until they were outside the store.
MT:    Who was behind the protests and why did they target your store?
SB:     A local group that calls themselves the “Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign.” They have targeted Lavan as an Israeli brand (all of my products are manufactured in Israel). They claim in their brochure that by manufacturing Dead Sea Mineral products, we support the alleged “mistreatment and oppression” of the Palestinian people in the area.
MT:    What were the protests like? Were you concerned about your safety and your shop?
SB:     As each protest comes and goes, they get larger in size and more organized. The number of protesters, signs, and props increase. They have a ten-foot-tall effigy of [controversial Israeli Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman, and images of Israelis as “apartheid vultures.” These vulture images, to me personally, are no different from the Nazis drawing Jews as pigs in the 1930's.
They also brought a six-foot-tall wall that they use to block my display and divert pedestrians on the sidewalk away from my store. They also distribute vicious and slanderous pamphlets to the pedestrians and Lavan's customers containing false claims about Lavan, as well as an edited version of our logo from “Body, Mind, and Soap” to “Bomb, Mine and Sell.”
Safety is always a concern during any protest. My employees are upset and scared, which is understandable considering there are people outside protesting our homeland's existence. One protester said “Heil Hitler!” to one of Lavan's supporters during the first protest. As a new immigrant to Canada and a business owner, I try to keep a lid on the tense emotions involved. Thankfully the police and a few of my best friends showed up when they were called, to discourage violence.
MT:    How did the word start to get out that you were under assault? What was the response, when people learned you were being harassed?
SB:     I wrote letters to the Jewish community and local Rabbis to let them know of my situation. They called for the counter-measure of a buycott. But the protesters would come unannounced. Unable to mobilize the Jewish and Israeli communities with so little warning, support on the day of the protests was small. They tried but they can only do so much.
I then went to the Israeli paper Ynet, which thankfully got Lavan's story global recognition. The support I then received was incredibly empowering. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by this love and support. From “Likes” on Lavan's Facebook page, to orders online, to supportive phone calls and even a Facebook group created for this struggle by an Israeli girl in the UK, Gili Brenner. Also, the Israeli band “Hadag Nachash” came to the store to support us. This helps me keep standing strong.
MT:    Was there any kind of official response from the Canadian or Israeli governments or local Jewish organizations?
SB:     Yes. The Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Mr. Jason Kenny, visited the store to support Israel and my business, and the staff and myself personally. I got the blessings of the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, via the Ynet article and I spoke at great length with his VP to try to find some creative ideas to improve Israel's image in the world. Also, the local Jewish centers motivated their people to come and support me and Lavan. The leading local Rabbis even replaced my mezuza, and came personally to the store to show their support.
MT:    During Israeli Apartheid Week, are the protests outside your store getting worse?
SB:     I have to be honest with you: I refuse to use Israel and apartheid in the same sentence. This is simply ridiculous and spreads ignorance. There is absolutely nothing Israel shares with apartheid. Israel is a very proud democracy that can be an inspiration to many other countries in the world.
Most of the action [of Israeli Apartheid Week] was in the universities and we have yet to be protested so far during this “Anti-Israel week,” but I can only hope that when they come again – which they no doubt will – they will not be greater in number.
MT:    Shanie, before your store was picketed, did you consider yourself very political? If not, how about now?
SB:     I'm not a diplomat, and I've never been one. I am an entrepreneur. Some people were upset with me for addressing the press. I meant no harm; I only wanted to end this madness. Now, I can say I have some idea of the power of politics and how complicated it is. I simply want peace and peaceful living.
I believe in the protesters’ right to free speech, but I do not deserve to be targeted for the origin of my products, or my origin, even. I simply make and sell soap. I don't oppress or control anybody or take away anybody's rights.
MT:    What can your supporters do to help?
SB:     I am extremely grateful and thankful for any form of support. Whether it be sharing my story, a Facebook page, coming into the store to make a purchase, or visiting our online store. Support in any form is what I was praying for.
I think that any product made in Israel is a strong and proud ambassador of Israel. It just feels wrong that Israel is the only country in the world to have an “Anti-Week” against it. And now I hope that instead of being a target for hate we will be a symbol of success.
(This article originally appeared here at FrontPage Mag, 3/9/12)