British BDS countered by grassroots movements and humor

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A recent event of Sussex Friends of Israel's "Pies Against Lies" initiative, launched to counter Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protests at the Israeli-owned Ecostream store in Brighton, England. Credit: Oren Teichmann/Sussex Friends of Israel.

A recent event of Sussex Friends of Israel’s “Pies Against Lies” initiative, launched to counter Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protests at the Israeli-owned Ecostream store in Brighton, England. Credit: Oren Teichmann/Sussex Friends of Israel.

By Jenni Frazer/

In August 2012, a Christian and a Jew bumped into each other in Brighton, the languid seaside resort on Britain’s south coast that has become the hub of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protests at the local Ecostream store. The Israeli-owned shop has attracted weekly demonstrations from the BDS crowd, angry that products made over the Green Line should be sold in the United Kingdom.

Simon Cobbs, a passionate Zionist who had lived in Israel for three years by the time he was 17, was walking past the Ecostream store when he spotted BDS demonstrators inside the shop. By chance, the man who lived in the apartment upstairs was Daniel Laurence, an equally passionate Christian Zionist. Cobbs and Laurence, like bouncers, threw the BDS demonstrators out. “Then we turned to each other and said, see you next week? I’ll bring some friends,” says Cobbs.

BDS scored a notable victory in London when sustained protests in the center of the capital forced the Israeli cosmetics store, Ahava, to close down in the summer of 2011. But in Brighton, a different narrative emerged. It was what local pro-Israel activist Dr. Winston Pickett describes as a moment from the movie “Network,” when famed British-born actor Peter Finch says, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”

Sussex Friends of Israel (SFI), born from that first accidental meeting between Cobbs and Laurence, has grown so successful that it has employed a part-time director, Neil Duncanson. The group now has 6,200 “likes” on Facebook and 1,200 followers on Twitter. Most of its supporters are local Jews, often people who had dropped out of mainstream activities, but who were galvanized by the anti-Ecostream protests that have frequently degenerated into anti-Semitic rhetoric and abuse. At least four grandmothers make regular appearances on the picket lines. SFI’s calling card has been most successful when—candidly—it has mocked the BDS protesters with cheerful humor and a friendly local saxophonist playing for the entertainment of Brighton’s Saturday shoppers.

While the BDS movement tries to hit Israel in the wallet, SFI’s anti-BDS efforts hone in on the stomach. A recent SFI campaign has been the “Pies Against Lies” initiative. Others have been “Cakes Against Hate” and “Bagels Against Bigotry.”

“We ran an event saying ‘we bring pies, they bring lies’ and offered food to the passers-by,” Duncanson says. “For me, the best part of the day is after the shouting stops and the ordinary person in the street has the chance to examine our leaflets and material, and ask questions.” At that point, according to Duncanson, those on the fence of the issue often reject BDS.

SFI now has a regular turnout of at least 30 people outside Ecostream, rising to about 70 or so for its foodie initiatives. BDS, by contrast, has advertised parades in Brighton that have failed to get off the ground. “At the beginning of March, they had a march which consisted of just eight people,” says Duncanson. “They had another [recently] which attracted only two people, young Libyan women. We said that they had two marches in March which weren’t marches.”

SFI’s model of undermining the BDS crowd with humor and education is attracting attention from all over Britain. “So far,” says Duncanson, “we have had inquiries from Inverness, Canterbury, Oxford, Hertfordshire, Portsmouth, Bournemouth, and north London.”

Whereas SFI is a grassroots organization, the Zionist Federation of Great Britain (ZF) and Ireland is a venerable Anglo-Jewish institution established in 1899, but it too is heavily invested in fighting the boycotters. ZF’s chairman, South African-born Paul Charney, says the group is starting to understand BDS—and how to deal with it—better.

“There is at least one category of protesters that is anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, and we know we can’t change their minds,” he says. “But we can negate the lies, and these people don’t get a free ride, they don’t get an unchallenged voice. We also have a role in educating those people who are willing to listen, particularly within the Jewish community.”

Charney describes the ZF’s most difficult area as “actually educating Jewish youth and try to rid them of the perception that because we are challenging boycotters, we are right-wing.”

“We are not [right-wing],” he says. “We are negating falsehoods and putting forward positive stories about Israel, in medical developments, inventions, research, et cetera. We feel we have something to say to normal right-minded people, and we also give [Jewish] people courage by providing a physical presence at some of the nastier protests.”

Most of those engaged in fighting the boycott campaign acknowledge that the front line is on college campuses. University of Oxford student Jonathan Hunter, UK campus director for the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, says there is a growing tide of delegitimization of Israel on every campus. “It is very loud, inaccurate, offensive, and intimidating,” he says. In fact, the anti-Israel voice is so loud that it is difficult to find students who are ready to speak out against it. On March 25, only two percent of the student body at King’s College, a constituent college of the University of London, voted on a controversial anti-Israel motion that pledges affiliation to the national BDS campaign.

Sami Steinbock, president of the about-to-be-launched Israel Society at King’s, has run a campaign against the boycotters. He says the resolution is not the end of the matter.

“There will be public pressure, including individuals and organizations associated with the university writing to the union, whether it be charitable foundations or individual academics. Furthermore, legal action is being explored as we have strong reason to believe that the motion is unlawful,” Steinbock says.

He adds, “As a Jewish student I can confirm that there is no institutional discrimination, but it is certainly uncomfortable to be on a campus atmosphere that votes in such a divisive and poisonous motion. In terms of Israeli students we have a fair amount, a few participated in our campaign; others are too scared to even identify as Israeli, given this motion, and are therefore staying as far away as possible.”

If things are bad for pro-Israel students at King’s, Hunter says an even darker campus is Sheffield, in the north of England. The Sheffield student union’s education officer is in charge of enforcing its “end the Israeli occupation” policy, and there was a recent attempt to put through a policy that would have forced the student-led Jewish Society to boycott Israel, says Hunter.

“The problem is that people who are applying to university are less likely to want to attend somewhere where there is a strong BDS presence, which means that there are smaller Jewish societies on campus and less impetus to try to overturn the BDS initiative,” Hunter says. “In [the Scottish city of] Dundee, for example, there are only two Jewish students. But even on bigger campuses people don’t want to draw attention to themselves by opposing what has become the majority opinion.”

On the horizon are new challenges for Britain’s pro-Israel activists, such as the recent decision of the Royal Institute of British Architects (and its separate Scottish counterpart) to boycott the Israel Architects’ Union and push for the Jewish state’s ejection from the International Union of Architects. There are also fights against supermarket chains that refuse to stock Israeli produce, and campaigns to persuade local authorities not to use Israeli inventions—such as the latest initiative against Arad Water and its state-of-the-art water meters. The way the Zionist Federation’s Charney sees it, the stakes are high.

“BDS is not a battle that we can win, but it’s one we can’t afford to lose,” he says.