Israeli matzoh boycott hits home
A new movement on the part of Jewish Americans in support of Palestinian rights challenges the notion that there is a monolithic Jewish voice in support of Israel. Saturday one such group, Jews for Divestment, handed out leaflets in front of Berkeley supermarkets to organize a boycott of Israeli matzoh for this year’s Passover on April 8.
“I think the Jewish community that I’ve seen has been very torn about it,” said Morgan Fichter, a member of Jews for Justice and Women in Black, groups that try to call attention to the situation in Palestine.
“Jewish people are speaking out, saying ‘not in my name,’” she said.
The boycott is in support of a general boycott by the Arab anti-discrimination committee on Israeli products and people in front of the Berkeley Bowl reacted strongly.
Sylvia Levy pushed a full shopping cart empty of Israeli matzoh out of the market yesterday. She said that she will be buying U.S. matzoh this year although she has purchased Israeli matzoh in the past.
“It brings the issue into reality,” she said. “Here you have a product from Israel. You have a choice.”
The boycott, she said, forces people to recognize that purchasing goods from Israel is in effect supporting the Israeli state, something that she does not feel comfortable doing.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tom Schatzki left the market enraged.
“They’re living in someone else’s land,” he said, pointing to the group trying to organize the boycott. “In 1948, in the War of Independence, the Arabs had one goal, to destroy the Jews.”
The woman with him was so angry that she simply made an obscene hand gesture towards the group but otherwise remained silent.
Schatzki struggled to retain his cool. “I’m liberal as hell,” he said. “But I’m not crazy.”
Passover, a time for reflection on the liberation of the Jewish people, is a particularly sensitive time to call a boycott. And Matzoh, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover, is central to the Passover celebration. The organizers planned it that way.
“Passover is a celebration of the liberation of Jews, the struggle for Jewish freedom in Egypt,” said Cindy Shamban. “It’s also a time when people are thinking about the issues of freedom and the issues of repression. Israelis can not have their freedom on the backs of other people.”
Shirley Hamburg said that an obvious division in the Jewish community around the Israeli-Palestinian question is new.
“There’s never been any significant number of Jewish people that have come together in criticism of Israel,” she said. “I think it’s a new generation that has come up and does not really feel more secure in the world because of Israel. They feel less secure.”
Hamburg didn’t have any obvious or certain explanations for the new movement amongst progressive Jews for Palestinian rights, but she said her parents generation grew up with a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. She also said her parents believed that Jewish security would be supported if there was a homeland where Jewish people could control their own lives.
Although Hamburg said children learn to unconditionally support the actions of Israel, she added that was changing.
“They realize that actually to support our people is to support the Palestinian people. There can’t be security without peace. The whole thing is turned on it’s head,” she said.
The boycott is not expected to make a strong economic difference to Israel, said organizers. But supporters took heart in the small movement.
“I think it’s 50 years late,” said Khalil Bendib.
Bendib said that ever since the movement to divest from South Africa in protest of apartheid he had hoped people would take the same tack with Palestine.
“I was always wishing there wouldn’t be a double standard,” he said.
Although all supporters of the boycott recognized that the boycott at this stage is simply a symbolic gesture, they hoped to use it as a means for spreading information about the injustices they believe are committed on the Palestinian people, in part to counterbalance what they see as a widespread bias towards Israel in the media.
Bendib described problems he sees in media coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
“You really have to scrutinize the paper to find the word ‘occupation.’” he said, referring to the fact that according to the United Nations, Palestine is under occupation by the Israeli military.
Instead he said, “You’re led to believe that Palestinians are naturally violent,” because there is no explicit statement of the reason for their fight.
Bendib believes the bias carries over into descriptions of the intifada, and the consequent Israeli crackdown.
“Palestinians ‘die in clashes,’ as though it were an act of god,” he said. “Israelis are ‘killed by Palestinians.’.